After twenty years in the Navy, I know how to “hurry up and wait.” But knowing how doesn’t make it any easier – especially when it comes to my writing.
Back in December, I finished writing and revising five short stories. They’re all related – they take place in or around the Navy in the early- to mid-1990s, and they’re all stories about women: enlisted, officer, wife, one-night-stand picked up in a bar in a foreign port. They’re stories that come out of my personal experience, out of what matters most to me when I put down my Navy experience on paper to try to make sense of it, and out of what novelist Harper Lee calls the author’s “divine discontent.” It felt urgent to get the stories down on paper. Four of them were written in a private workshop with a published writer whose work I admire and whose feedback I respect; I revised them carefully, with extreme attention to every suggestion she made for improvement. I’m confident that I’ve never written anything more honest, or anything better.
By mid-January, I’d revised them all at least four or five times and submitted them to the “top level” of my long-shot lit journals and contests. I made notes and partial rough drafts of another seven or eight related stories, and applied for a residency that would give me a couple of weeks of solitude early in the summer to draft and revise and get the whole thing ready to submit for publication as a collection. I planned the next tier of submissions, in anticipation of the inevitable rejections. (There are always rejections.) Then the waiting started.
I’m an editor for a lit journal, so I know exactly what’s happening to my stories when they pop up in another journal’s Submittable queue. I know why it will take most of those journals and contest managers so long to read my work and respond. I empathize with them. And I know from almost ten years of writing and submitting that the only way to get through the waiting period is to forget about the stories that are out for consideration, and to keep working on other things.
So I made up a schedule for finishing the other stories, and forced myself to work on them for at least an hour every day. Nothing was coming out right. Then the first couple of rejections trickled back in. I set aside the stories and made myself work for at least a few hours a day on two other, less urgent projects.
Finally it was time to go on spring break travel with my family. I thought that a week of sun, sand, surf, margaritas, and Mayan ruins would be enough to distract me from calendar-watching. I bought a book of Gabriel García Márquez stories in Spanish, downloaded a dictionary onto my iPad, and planned to spend the week reading and forgetting all about those pesky stories and submissions. I resolved that I would come back from vacation newly motivated to finish the rest of the stories. That was when the trouble really started, though.
There’s a point in every “hurry up and wait” drill where the mission seems pointless and self-doubt creeps in. Officer Candidate School was like that for me. I spent the entire sixteen weeks alternating between impatience with the classes and drills, and terror that I wasn’t cut out to be a naval officer and would be exposed as either inadequate or a fraud. Our battalion chief (aka drill sergeant) was the first sailor ever to make it through Marine Corps Drill Instructor School, and he had the toughest reputation in Newport. He was emaciated, a marathon runner, and a boatswain’s mate – one of the most macho ratings in the Navy. He apparently never slept. He skewered me with an owlish stare every time I dropped out of PT to catch my breath or stretch a too-tight muscle. He addressed me only as “Hey, Girl!” for the first fourteen weeks of OCS. (The men all had names, which he bellowed at top volume and followed with “Drop and give me fifty!” Even though he dropped me for fifty push-ups at least as often as everyone else, he didn’t seem to think it was worth the effort to remember and use my name. I was going to fail, and my name would never be preceded by the rank of “Ensign.”) Every day I expected the Chief to get in my face and tell me that he knew I was a fake. That my military bearing would never be satisfactory. That he knew that the bronchitis diagnosis I convinced the flight surgeon to give me after I’d dropped out of a five-mile run in January was a cover for cold weather-induced asthma, which should have disqualified me from service. That I would never meet the physical fitness standards even though the only test I’d failed was the burning-oil swim (which I later passed, thanks to the inspirational underwater view: the muscular legs of the SEAL who supervised the extra instruction sessions).
That same self-doubt always creeps in when I’m waiting for acceptances or rejections, and it hit me hard this week. Who do I think I am to call myself a writer, when in ten years of writing I’ve had exactly two pieces published in lit journals and won a few prizes over years of entering my work in a regional writing contest? Where do I get off asking respected journals to publish my work? Why do I think that I’ll finish these short stories, or that anyone would want to read them if I did? Some real writer is going to get in my face one of these days and tell me I’m a fake, that I’ll never get these stories published, that I don’t belong in the writing and publishing community with the real writers. All I have to do is hurry up and wait for it to happen.
Week Fourteen at OCS was the make-or-break physical fitness test, with the most stringent standards. The mile-and-a-half run was three laps around the parade ground, set on a slope between the residence hall and the classroom building. I ran the first lap and felt my airways starting to close down. I slowed to a walk. Suddenly, there was the Chief right beside me. “Officer Candidate Bell,” he said. (The Chief knew my name!) “I’ve been watching you these last fourteen weeks. You might have to drop back and catch your breath once in a while, but you’ve never quit. And you’ve come too far to quit now. Come on – I’ll pace you. I’ll run the last mile with you.” He did. And I passed. Two short weeks later, I pulled the black electrical tape off the shiny, new ensign stripes on my service dress blues and took my first salute – from the Chief.
I am a real writer, whether or not my new stories get published. I have faith that while they will collect their fair share of rejections, eventually they will find good homes in print. And there’s nothing to do while I hurry up and wait but get back to work, even if the writing doesn’t seem to be going well.
While I write, I’m going to conjure the image of the Chief sitting beside me in his gonna-kick-your-ass-you-pathetic-wannabe drill instructor hat – the one he earned after someone made the mistake of telling him that sailors weren’t tough enough to run with the Marines at Drill Instructor School.
“Hey, Girl!” I’ll hear him saying. “Officer Candidate Bell! You’ve come too far to quit now. Come on – I’ll pace you. I’ll write the last pages with you.”