On Persistence

By Michael Keefe

We all know that famous Thomas Edison quote: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” For the purpose of writing about writing, let’s change “genius” to the less presumptive “creativity.” And, instead of “perspiration,” let’s call it “persistence.” If you’re sweating while you write, turn on a fan. Or take two aspirin and go to bed.

In January, Tahoma Literary Review accepted my short story, “There Is a Tunnel,” for publication in their spring 2017 issue. I was particularly thrilled by this news––not only because of Tahoma’s excellent reputation, but also because I’d worked on this story for years. I attribute ninety-nine percent of that acceptance letter to sheer persistence.

“There Is a Tunnel” has its origin in a different story I started writing in 2010 about a recently divorced prison guard in the Southern California desert. My idea, never fully brought to fruition, was to have the guard pursue a gang of escaped prisoners through a tunnel. Instead of catching the escapees, the guard would, by dint of magical realism, follow this tunnel one hundred miles to the seaside home of his ex-wife, where they would get a second chance at marital bliss.

Okay, but so what? The story had a satirical tone that sapped its emotional energy, and the stakes felt too low. My own interest flagged, and I left the piece unfinished. But, like my character Kate Blaine in “There Is a Tunnel,” I found myself compelled by the fundamental idea of that tunnel––the allure of a mysterious passageway that leads to a fresh start in life. To raise the stakes, I consciously moved the tunnel’s entrance across the Mexican border. Far less consciously, and with no self-awareness that I was writing a variation on the Hero’s Journey archetype, I installed a threshold guardian for the tunnel: a mysterious poet named Manuel Dresner. In Kate, I created a protagonist so desperate for transformation that she would risk her life to attain it.

At least, I tried to imbue Kate with those qualities. Throughout 2015, I submitted “There Is a Tunnel” to fifteen literary journals. And I received fifteen rejections. Thankfully, one very generous editor liked the story well enough to tell me why he ultimately rejected it: Kate’s motives were “too vague.” In writing workshops, I was receiving similar feedback on other stories. From then on, I made it my mission to better reveal the hearts and minds of my characters.

I worked on revisions during the first half of 2016. In August, I began submitting to a new batch of journals. Over the next four months, my newly improved, emotionally deeper, and altogether shinier draft of “There Is a Tunnel” was rejected another eighteen times. For those of you keeping score, that’s a grand total of thirty-three passes. Empirical evidence would suggest that my story simply wasn’t very good. But I didn’t believe that. I understood that the odds of getting accepted at a quality journal were low and that, because editors receive hundreds or even thousands of submissions each reading period, they don’t have room to publish every story they like. For all I knew, I had been nearly accepted every time.

So, I persisted. And, okay, maybe I perspired a little. Then I took two aspirins and hit “submit” again. Because, once a story is finally accepted, none of those past failures matter anymore. That story becomes a success.

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Michael Keefe’s story, “There Is a Tunnel,” is published in TLR issue 9. He is the Events Coordinator and Publicist at Annie Bloom’s Books, an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Thin Air Magazine and Santa Fe Literary Review, and his essays and reviews have appeared in PopMatters and Sound on Sound’s Performing Musician Magazine, among others.