Spilt Ink: Michael Beeman
From Inspiration to Print
I wrote “The Sleeping Saints” for Kelly Link, my first-semester mentor at the Stonecoast MFA program, saw it published in the Sewanee Review, and gave it to George Saunders, one of my literary heroes, after it was published. Seeing something I wrote mentioned alongside the names above is still humbling. So was the process of writing it—the long road from inspiration to print.
Five years passed between the time I sat down to write a story about soldiers returning to their hometown as ghosts and the day I saw the story in print. In between, I wrote and re-wrote, edited and revised, read the story out loud to myself and typed it again word-for-word. I set it on different continents, switched decades, changed wars. The main character became an old man, a young child, a father. I sent it to some journals along the way, after each revision. They wisely declined. For the life of me, I could not get the story right.
I might still be revising if a friend hadn’t loaned me a copy of the Best American Short Stories of the Century, a mammoth anthology edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison. The collection highlights six to eight stories from each decade, including many by past contributors to the Sewanee Review (Katherine Anne Porter, Jean Stafford, Eudora Welty, and Joyce Carol Oates, just to name a few). Reading through the anthology was a lesson in the evolution of American fiction through the last century, and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in the short story and a lot of time to read—at over 850 pages, it’s a doorstopper.
I read the book’s introduction last, and what Updike wrote echoed something that had bothered me as I read the stories: “It surprised me that World War ii, that all-consuming paroxysm, left so meager a trace in the fiction of this decade [the forties].” He then laments the lag between event and fiction, the time it often takes for art to respond to culture. This critique may not be entirely fair, and Updike later concedes that “while looking to fiction to mirror its time, we must remember that writers generally write through a number of decades and gather their formative impressions in decades earlier still.” The complaint was nevertheless helpful for me.
After reading Updike’s criticism, I saw that an engagement with the present was the element missing from much of my writing—“The Sleeping Saints” in particular. I returned to my stalled story and moved it to the near-present, in 2004. I settled the characters in New Hampshire, borrowing liberally from my own hometown. Bored with the many male narrators I had been reading (in my own fiction most of all), I made the hero a young woman. As the characters became real, the story began to take its intended shape. It was entirely different from the piece I’d imagined years earlier, but it became a new story that excited me again.
The story still needed a home. Encouraged by Marlin Barton’s excellent “Into Silence,” which I had just read in the 2010 Best American Short Stories anthology, I researched the Sewanee Review’s reading period and submission requirements. I saw an upcoming “Literature of War” issue and figured I might have a chance. I mailed in my story and crossed my fingers. I was absolutely floored when the acceptance letter, signed by George Core himself, came in the mail six weeks later.
The issue had just come out when I attended the 2013 AWP conference in Boston. The Sewanee Review’s staff kindly lugged a half dozen copies of the issue north—all of which I intended to give away to friends and writers I admired. On my last day in Boston, I found myself with the final copy in hand, waiting in line to meet George Saunders after his reading at the Brattle Theater.
The last person in line, I held the issue out, stammering something about how much his collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline inspired me, how his writing had changed the way I thought about fiction, and how I wanted to thank him for giving me so many of my favorite stories by giving him one of my own. I’m not sure how much he heard, but his eyes lit up as soon as he saw the Sewanee Review.
“Hey, that’s a great magazine!” he said, taking the issue. “You have a story in this issue?” I nodded. Then George Saunders, literary rock star, MacArthur Genius Grant winner, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2013, asked me to sign it for him. I think I did (my mind had been completely blown). “Congratulations,” he said, shaking my hand after I’d signed my name. “This is a great magazine.”
I couldn’t agree more.
To me, the Sewanee Review’s ongoing dedication to publishing issues about war seems an antidote to Updike’s complaint: a way for literature to maintain relevancy by engaging with important issues of the present. I was happy to see the magazine expand its online presence with Brock Adam’s “Spilt Ink”for this same reason. I will always favor reading physical books and magazines, but I discover great writing online every day, too. I’m glad the Sewanee Review will be able to connect with even more readers. If you are just discovering it for the first time, to echo a friend, Congratulations. This is a great magazine. I can’t wait to read whatever they have in store for us next.
Since completing the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA Program in 2009, Michael Beeman has placed writing in the Sewanee Review, Esquire.com, Volume 1. Brooklyn, the South Carolina Review, Thought Catalog, Necessary Fiction, Publishers Weekly, Per Contra, and ForeWord Reviews, among other venues. He recently won the 2013 Andrew Lytle Fiction Prize for best story from the Sewanee Review for his story "Sleeping Saints," published in our winter 2013 issue. He also edits fiction for Big Lucks and reads for Electric Literature's Recommended Reading series. Originally from New England, he now lives in Washington, DC, where he is an enthusiastic volunteer at Dave Eggers' non-profit tutoring center 826DC.