Notes on “Applications in Mathematics”

My story, “Applications in Mathematics” is out this week in the Spring 2018 issue of Beloit Fiction Journal. I’m so excited to finally see this one in print, and I can’t wait to get a copy in my hands. I was a finalist in their annual contest last year, and one of the perks of submitting to these contests it that you typically get a subscription included in the entry fee. I read that issue and really loved most of the stories in it, so I was pretty excited to take a swing at this year’s contest. Unfortunately, a conflict-of-interest situation prevented me form entering with my ethical standards intact, but I took my chances with the regular submission slush pile, because I was convinced that I had a story that would fit. For reasons that will become clear later, the room must have been a little dusty when I got the acceptance in my inbox. You can order a copy of the issue from Beloit Fiction Journal’s website. It’s only $10, and it’s full of stories from writers with pretty impressive pedigrees–Iowa Short Fiction Awards, Flannery O’Connor finalists, etc.

“Applications in Mathematics” is hard for me to write about. For starters, I think the story speaks for itself. It’s shorter than my typical literary endeavors and surprising, and I don’t want to spoil it (you should read it!). Also, I wrote it almost 5 years ago, and I don’t remember much about what the spark for the story was. I do know that my initial outline for it looks nothing like the story it became. For example, the protagonist’s father, Elmer, is described in my initial outline as:

“Crew cut, fought in the war. Patrick [the protagonist’s son] has no idea which one (it was Korea). Elmer thinks Patrick is a pansy because he is soft and always needs to be entertained and it’s Julia’s fault. Exclaims phrases like ‘cripes’ and ‘balls.’ Lives in Menominee and loves the Packers. Staunch Lutheran, because why not. Really disappointed in his late wife; probably thinks she’s in hell. Always keeps the garage door open. (Things to read up on: Lutheranism).”

In the final version, Elmer is mentioned briefly, but never physically appears or even gets to say “cripes.”

Instead, I started what I thought would be a long, complex, layered story and derailed it almost as soon as it got underway. It was the perfect decision. My wife read the first draft in the first week of April, 2013, and when I pull up that version, it isn’t drastically different from the final one. I tightened the language and pacing a bit, sharpened the characters and whatnot, but as far as structure, narrative arc and all those other elements go, I got it right the first time (this is not at all typical). I think this was one of her favorites–believe it or not, she doesn’t like them all.

When I gave this story to my writing group at the time, most of them said that it was the best thing they’d ever read from me. There wasn’t much to fix. And while I did my best to shrug off such effusive praise, I admit that I kind of agreed (this is also not typical). So imagine my surprise when I started submitting this story and watched the rejections pile up. In my defense, a lot of those were tiered rejections, the kind that say “we really liked this story and hope you’ll try us again soon.” There were even a few highly reputable journals that told me I’d made it to the final round and just missed. But close only counts in certain things that start with an “H,” and after 4 years, I had amassed over 60 rejections.

Now, rejection is a part of the writing life. I’ve mentioned that more than a few times on this blog. But I really thought this story would be easier to place. And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m trying to put lipstick on a pig, here, that this is some inferior story, because I’m not kidding when I say it’s good. (Order a copy. You’re going to love it). My point is, so much of the writing life is trying to beat the odds. Sometimes it boils down to the idea that, for us “emerging” writers, the story has to land in front of the right reader for the right publication at the right time, and that can be impossible to predict. The last story I had out was rejected 50 times before it wound up in a great journal and scored a Pushcart nomination. Sometimes, those rejections mean a story just isn’t that good. But sometimes, that story is worth believing in. “Applications in Mathematics” took forever, but I’m thrilled where it ended up, and I hope you’ll agree it was worth the wait. I’m so grateful I can finally share it with you.

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