From the hot-off-the-presses Rejection Issue, here is Mitchell S. Jackson on being rejected by his onetime mentor, Gordon Lish. Jackson will join Rejection Issue-mates Paul Beatty and Ann Hodgman at the New York release party at KGB this Sunday, March 1 at 7:00pm.
You know where we come from: jet trips from Paris and LA, Michigan and Cleveland. Hours long trains from the New York that’s almost Canada and Connecticut and Phila. You know as well who we are: philomaths with framed degrees from Harvard and Columbia; NYU and Brown. Someone else’s superstar with published stories on their CV. Or else an Iowa grad with bylines and a book. Here and there too, the non-vetted with nothing more than a pencil and Moleskin to claim.
And yes, of course, OG, you know why we come: to witness your lore in motu. For a chance to join the list of anointed.
But on the forreals, I came as well for who and what was not on your grand list of scribes: one of me, and you know what I mean. What I told myself was I could be the first—no baby boon. What I said to myself was if I took to your gifts, was able to apply them to my ways of seeing, thinking, being, to the language that felt native to me, I had action at being some grade of seminal, would have the chance to craft a voice that, if not new, would at least be fresh. So there I was in the front row of those semi-circled fold-up chairs, the lone brown face in that class full of hope-to-becomes vying for your report cards and permission and admittance slips.
Awed to the utmost seeing you decked in your famous get up while you scratched on the chalkboard. That first day you eased into talk of E=MC2., which as I understand, is an equation that gifts us an effect greater than the sum of our words. By night’s end (Were you juiced on a Ginseng-B12 cocktail?). I was anxious as everything and went home trying to discover my “wound” and how it might bare a sentence of beautiful truth. Worked on a measly few words for as long previous as I would’ve worked on a whole story and came back to the Lish workshop as crucible off generic nerve. That night I sat rapt through hours of what was no less than sermon. You got around to picking readers and called my name midway through.
“She said hold it for safe keep,” I read, and winced.
“Go on, ” you said.
“She said hold it for safe keep and then she took it back,” I said.
“Yes, yes, go on,” you said.
“The rent money from under the mattress.“
“Stop! Jackson. You don’t want anybody’s sympathy. Don’t ever ask for anyone’s sympathy,’ ” you said, and paused. “But I’ll tell you one thing, Jackson, you got an ear.”
You got an ear.If it was news of me winning a Nobel it wouldn’t have felt no better. No lie, there hasn’t been a moment before or since when a comment on my work mattered more. You’re a sage dude, so you know how we each revere you. But what you could not have known, what I might not have known, was how important it was for the new negro in that room to make good for his kind, how much I craved someone as great as you seeing even an inkling of promise in me, how for all that damn graduate school, I had yet to be born into the life I wanted to live.
Ah, the rest of that halcyon first summer. You leaving me messages late at night (Yes, I saved them):
“Jackson you have the strength to beat them all.”
“Jackson, you want to reach the top, I can take you to the top.”
“Jackson, write like you mean it. Every word’s a weapon.”
That next summer we worked on Head Down, Palm Up, a story that to my mindwas the strongest thing I’d ever wrote (which wasn’t really shit, but still). Do you remember working with me on the ending? Me calling you a late night to read paragraphs? You saying, “Close, but not yet.” Saying, “Almost, keep at it.“ Worked on that joint till the wee hours and called you knowing there was a good chance you’d be knocked out and dreaming of perfect edits. But you answered, thank god, and I read my revised ending and waited an eon for your response. “That’s it,“ you said. “ You did it.”
Would you believe me if I told you my grown ass danced around my crib?
Then there we were one on ones in The Center For Fiction. Me trying muscle the story to more strength.
My uncle dropped his cig and smashed it under his foot, the line read.
You pointed to it and said something like, “‘That’s not writing, Jackson. Anybody can do that. Push.”
So I revised: The man drops his menthol and murders it under his shoe.
“Yeeesss, Jackson. That’s writing.”
Back then I would’ve dismissed with the quickness the idea you’d desert me, was dead sure my name was headed for a spot on your illustrious list of authors. But then shit started to go sideways.
Felt the first ice when we were working on “Oversoul.” Can’t remember your exact feedback on it, but what I do remember was feeling it was less meticulous than it had been before. So I tried a letter and received a cryptic postcard in return. Then the phone calls you never could take on account of other business. This was about the time I started to ask around and found out word on the mean literary streets was you’d been cutting umbilicals to grown scribblers for years. That it happened most often to those that succeeded, more often to males than females.
The rumors, though, didn’t stop me from questioning: Was it because you were mid-seventies with a zillion ex-students who felt a rightful claim to you? Could it be your boy Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence playing out, the master turning against the pupil before the pupil overcomes him? Could it have been me complaining to you about my advance? Guess it’s reasonable you’d take offense to such a complaint. Legend has it you weren’t breaking banks with what you offered your writers. Did you deemed me an ingrate? Not thankful enough for your help. Or was it more personal? Me failing to send a proper thank you gift. That fact I never showed at your crib with a bottle of Metaxa and a plump joint? Me forsaking my promise of bringing you a young tender to charm? Or could it have been the question that dogs me post every judgment and dismissal, after every perceived slight, each time I sense someone gauging my morals, intelligence, worth….Was it because I’m black?
Or, OG, is race in this instance just another alibi?
Questions, so many questions. And not near enough answers which is why it’s damn near impossible to deal with this:
“Who’s this? “
“Yeah, Mitchell Jackson.”
First time it happened I thought we had a bad line. The second time I chalked it to a bad day. Couldn’t see just cause, so my response the next time or maybe the one thereafter was, fuck him. Cursed you but knew in an instant that stance couldn’t last, that in my deep places, I could ill afford another instance of stubborn hetero-pride hardening into an irreparable breach. Plus, the more I thought on it, the more I realized I was culpable, that I should’ve minded the wise old Jew who warned a class of disciples.
“The child battens on your depletion. The child: ‘Get out of the fucking way. Time to die, old man.’ Why not let the child eat your heart out? They’re going to do it any way.”
“You’ve got to say fuck you to the witchdoctor.”
“Don’t. Trust. Anybody.”
Maybe my worry is being found inferior, the gnawing doubt that I lack schooling, haven’t read enough, am not informed enough, that the shallow reservoir of words of which I lay claim will fail me, like so many humans have, at the precise moment I need them most; it is the dread that sans you as shaman my work won’t withstand critics, that whatever strength I’ve accrued will be weakened in due time. Maybe the crux of my fear is that, despite praying otherwise, without you, I am less than the writer I could be.
God knows I’ve benefitted beaucoup. It’s no secret: No you, no note packed with my manuscript for my agent. No you, not that agent, which means none of her guidance. No you, no agent, no revisions, no sending it out when it went out, which means not the godsend of my editor.
Timing, timing, timing. No you—no career as it stands.
Or what I mean to say is you altered my life, OG, whether you claim me or it or us or not. So how could I ever be anything but thankful?
Heads up. There exist in me a disbelieving muscle-bound flagellant, which means I’ll call again. If you let me get past my name next time, you can remind me I should’ve never looked to a mentor to shield me from failing.
Though I might ask, but what about a literary father?
Confession: It took me till almost my tweens to learn how to ride a bike. My (biological) dad used to take me to the park because I was too chickenshit to practice on concrete. Dad’s MO was he’d hold my seat while I rode through the grass, let go when I picked up speed, and call my name to let me know I was wheeling hands free which, almost on cue, would prompt a fall. God’s truth, the man ghost rode me for longer than I care to admit. But months later, BOOYOW, I was riding wheelies from street sign to street sign, jumping off shipping docks tall as a cliff, and BMX’ing through dirt fields with hills like small mountains. So old Gordon how about this: Let’s call the new terms of us you letting my seat go for the last time, you watching while I ride more steady and farther and further from you on my own.
Mitchell S. Jackson is a Portland, Oregon native who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He published the ebook Oversoul: Stories and Essays in 2012. His debut novel The Residue Years received the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.