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The Strange Life of Another Odd Short Story

Updated on August 26, 2013
St. Louis Science Center
St. Louis Science Center
St. Louis Science Center
St. Louis Science Center
Forest Park Pavillion
Forest Park Pavillion
Forest Park Waterfall
Forest Park Waterfall
St. Francis River Missouri
St. Francis River Missouri
Washington University St. Louis
Washington University St. Louis

Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards

I cannot remember when or why I wrote Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards. Judging from the initial setting, I think I’d just started working for McDonnell Aircraft in the old Falstaff Brewery Building across the street from Forest Park, now the location of the St. Louis Science Center. That was 1978.

In digging through my collection of submissions and rejections, I found a May 17, 1979 submission to Bill Plummer of Quest/79. You can still find back copies online. Here is my submission as typed in 1979.

"Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards, approximately 1800 words, radiates heterogeneous realities; i.e. office women are lizards, golf balls are bullets and symbols of religious fanaticism, the narrator is a civil war hero attacking a Nuclear Power plant, the office women lizards are southern belles, and marathon running is a form of protest. You see, I think I’ve figured out the effect of nuclear radiation when mixed with alcohol, office drudgery, romance, marathon running, and the civil war."

Rejection, as you might imagine, quickly followed. "Regretfully... we do not find it suitable for our sales efforts and do not believe editorial work would be likely to lead to an eventual sale."

At some point, I showed the story to my friend Lynn. We were driving into the wilderness, twisting along Ozark roads, maybe headed toward the annual White Water races on the St. Francis River. We may have been a little buzzed. Lynn’s reaction, while I don’t remember her exact words, at least wasn’t unflattering. In fact, I may have (mistakenly?) taken her comments as a compliment, probably something like, "You don’t hold back."

Around the same time, I met Alan, a wiry, long-haired ex-mailman with John Lennon glasses who was hosting a radio show on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis. I may have met him through my involvement with a local theater company, The St. Louis Ensemble. (The executive producer, Lisa and I were dating, although we nor anyone else ever used the term "dating.") Alan decided that my story should be on the radio. Lisa and likely another St. Louis Ensemble actor (can’t remember who) read the lines of the two female characters.

When we rehearsed, my narration was monotone, a lifeless mechanical drone provoking guffaws and dismissive snorts from all the thespians perpetually fawning over Lisa. With theatrical graciousness, Lisa coached me into making my voice come alive for the listener, a first step toward performing my work over the years, and greatly improving my teaching.

We recorded the story. Alan played it on air soon afterward. Then the switchboards lit up, one listener saying, "What was that?" Later, Alan somehow mistakenly erased the recording, and he asked us to rerecord it. However, my second effort, being the amateur I was, fell flat. And as I write this, I wonder what happened to that second recording. I’ve lost touch with Alan long ago. Nobody knows anything about him it seems. (Alan, if you’re still alive, and you are reading this, feel free to get in touch and clarify. Maybe you can fill in the blanks. None of our memories will match. My recollections here are distorted. I can’t help it. Nobody can. But maybe a collective memory will approximate truth.)

While those were, in hindsight, exciting times, the radio performance didn’t carry over into publishing success. And while I can’t seem to find other submission letters in my library of dusty binders in the basement, I’m sure I contacted numerous publishers and tried to highlight the radio performance. Lucky connections with like-minded publishers never materialized. Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards was filed away. And I moved on to my next fiction.

But like all my stories, particularly one as odd as this one, it never quite left me alone. The childbirth analogy, like all cliches, rings true. So since 1978, I have lived with this peculiar child, occasionally trying to push it off on unsuspecting readers. I tried hard not to be too youthfully obnoxious and self-indulgent. (If I was and I haven’t apologized already, consider this admission an apology.) Every now and then when revisiting my collection of work, I reread Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards and thought, what the hell was that?

Within the past few years, 2006-2010, I returned to my story. (This isn’t unusual for me, as I regularly return to my work, even after lots of years.) I cleaned it up and added a new ending that reflected the times. It’s maddening of course that our work becomes dated in our own lifetime, missing it’s zeitgeist moment. How many of our babies never survive? However, while new technologies were making my story dated, they were also making it easier to submit. So I did. And I got more "meritorious rejections" (see my askwritefish blog).

We're sorry to say that this manuscript is not right for us, in spite of its evident merit.

As I’ve written before, writing may be the only "profession" that measures success by the quality of failure. The line "in spite of its evident merit" from the New Yorker seemed to elevate the rejection.

So I sent it out again, this time to Weird Tales.

Dear Jeff, Bizarre little tale, but I am not convinced it works for me. Try me again? Ann

Of course, I did try her again with something I thought fit her magazine. But to no avail, and rather than work on changing my writing (and me? as maybe I should have), I moved on to new projects. My story kept bothering me, appearing in my dreams, sometimes as a nightmare in which I become the character I was when I wrote it. Technology continued to revolutionize the publishing world as evidenced by such websites as hubpages. I pressed on, and submitted to the new, aptly named Electric Literature.

Dear Writer: We thank you for submitting your story, "Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards," to Electric Literature. Unfortunately, it was not chosen for publication at this time.
We are committed to publishing short stories by both new and more established writers, and trust that you will consider sending us your best work in the future. Sincerely, Andy Hunter, Scott Lindenbaum, and Jeff Price, Editors, Electric Literature

I no longer get too excited about the potential for publication and no longer get too down about the failure to publish. In this case, my failure became a "successful failure" three hours later.

Jeff, We were training an intern today and a few notifications went out with a little too much haste. I had meant to add a word or two about your submissions. We enjoyed reading both, the dark humor, the literary derangement, the Vonnegut homage. Although neither was a match for our next issue, we hope that you send another story our way down the line. -Jeff Price

Of course I sent them another story, but with no luck. Besides, I moved on to rewriting my first novel, Roobala Take Me Home, changing the 450 pages to a first person reflective narration and didn’t finish that until late summer of 2010.

The story of my story was giving me a multiple deja vu, and as I looked back through the dusty binders, I found that it wasn’t the first time I came close to publication and felt the knife twisting at the end. But no matter. In 2008-2009, my novel Where the River Splits was published, and my story "The Wells Creek Route" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I had poems published, again. So I kept trying with Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards

Jeff, I got the Vonnegut homage right away & I really liked it. Both stories have merit. I’m going to hang on to them & give them to our fiction panel. I’m sorry they didn’t publish it, but I’m glad that the ball is only in our court now. As I joke with my friends: "I’m still being rejected, but by a higher class of publication now." Alex

Alex has been gracious and helpful, and he put me in touch with someone for another teaching job. I didn’t follow up on the job or the story. I was buried in my rewrite of Roobala Take Me Home and more or less forgot about it. Then they changed their format to just poetry and flash fiction, and Nuclear Power and the Civil War Lizards suddenly became too long, not flashy enough. (The other story he referred to in the email was the Pushcart story, which is almost 6,000 words.)

So my odd child still lives with me and I’ve yet to rid myself of the creature. Should I delete it from my hard-drive and cremate all printed copies? Or does some form of publication remain the only remedy?

Where the River Splits by Jeffrey Penn May - The journey to the end is never boring. - St. Louis Post Dispatch


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    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      :) Thanks Aiyetora, especially for your enthusiasm.

    • Aiyetora-ICe profile image

      Aiyetora-ICe 7 years ago from Acworth, Georgia

      OMG Thank you for the above story. I do indeed know your work. How foolish of me not to!!! That was a wonderful piece.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi TDR, unfortunately, it is unlikely that TNY keeps a record. And it may be that they just changed their standard rejection and neither of ours are "elevated" responses at all. How many of you other writers have received "merit" responses? I got relatively recent rejection from a literary agent with the phrase “while your work contained many merits.” Perhaps “merit” is the new rejection buzzword.

      On the other hand, I’ve received several that were not so generous or “meritorious.” I’ll try to give more input as I can. I have developed a thick skin and deep skepticism, as believe all fiction writers should.

      However, TDR, you should celebrate the possibility that TNY thinks your work has merit. Regardless of what they say, it very likely does.

      Good luck, Jeff.

    • profile image

      TDR 7 years ago

      Jeff, I also recently received an "evident merit" rejection from TNY Fiction. I'm close was I to being published? Do you think they keep a record of these 'close calls' (for lack of a better descriptor) for closer consideration of future submissions?

      Thanks for your input and your very interesting post.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Jandee, thanks for sharing your 70's story. We have all sorts of experiences that could be turned into a pretty good book, if only we could get the words right.

    • profile image

      jandee 7 years ago

      my memories of the seventies was when a very young and shy girl came into my bookshop and asked my advice on the latest book to buy! in my extreme feminist mood of the day I sent her off with 'The womens room' and to this day I wonder what the h..l she made of it as a first time read,and still feel a bit of guilt.Enjoyed your adventures and experiences of publishers and wouldn't that make a good book? jandee

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks Doug, yes I suppose that the 70s were quirky, and I thought everyone saw lizards as well, until we hit the mid-1980s and then things started to take on the sometimes unpleasant sharpness of reality.

    • profile image

      Doug Turner Jr. 7 years ago

      Doesn't everyone witness women turning into lizards? This is fun to read about your ups and downs of trying to get published. I imagine everyone being high and slightly quirky in the 70's. Then again, I'm viewing through the lens of movies, television, and stories like this one. Fun stuff, best of luck Jeff.

    • kathryn1000 profile image

      kathryn1000 7 years ago from London

      Maybe your lucky break is coming and I shall be very pleased for you if that is so,I started writing in January last year.

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Thanks kathryn and here's wishing you a productive new year.

    • kathryn1000 profile image

      kathryn1000 7 years ago from London

      I hope this will be the year your luck changes.Success or just some cash would be helpful at this point in your life

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi kathryn, thanks for not recommending that I commit suicide:) I've been determined for almost 40 years and I have met with some success, just not the measure of success(perhaps too lofty?) that I set for myself, which was hoping that enough people buy my books so that I can justify writing another. Where the River Splits is my only book so far that is legitimately published, available on Amazon and as an ebook from Smashwords, as well as some local St. Louis bookstores. I've won short story contests and been nominated for a Pushcart and had short work published over the years, but never enough to pay the bills.

    • kathryn1000 profile image

      kathryn1000 7 years ago from London

      Well,I like all your writings I've read so far.Sylcia Plath had hundreds of attempts but before she got her poetry published.yet she was one of the best poets of her generation/She was one very determined lady.She also sent out TedHughes work in the same way and eventually they were successful/But when she died she had had only one book published.I don't recommend you to commit suicide in order to ensure lasting fame.Just keep on trying until you get lucky./some writers are a head of their time/

    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi Karen,

      Thanks for stopping by and for your kind and encouraging words. Yes, we keep pushing ahead, and judging from your website, you have also had some success.

      As my website states, my intent is to share practical tips and reflections from 35 years of trying to become a paid fiction writer, and fly fishing for Missouri smallmouth and Wyoming trout.

      No catfish on a fly rod. And I'm not sure what I'll do with my story. As I get older, I become less likely to keep submitting and am considering "publishing" everything online.

      Thanks again and good luck with your work.


    • Jeff May profile image

      Jeffrey Penn May 7 years ago from St. Louis

      Hi Lilly, appreciate your comments.

    • Karen Wodke profile image

      Karen Wodke 7 years ago from Midwest

      Well, I'm now intrigued by your story. And the story of your story was familiar. I too have seen a few rejection letters, and I am sure to see more. Still, don't we just keep on pushing ahead? I hope you soon have your story placed in a suitable magazine, one that appreciates your insight and wisdom.

    • LillyGrillzit profile image

      Lori J Latimer 7 years ago from The River Valley, Arkansas

      As I have said before, any writer published in the old school way, paid their dues. Thank you for sharing this.


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