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A very special Christmas
by Harry Mark Petrakis
Every writer’s story is an individual journey. A few seem to make an effortless leap into print. For most, however, a long, arduous apprenticeship is required before they understand that developing any writing ability requires years of reading, writing and rewriting. Suffering the avalanche of frustrations and disappointments, many falter along the way and simply give up.
Christmas might be a fitting time to tell my story because it was on a Christmas 55 years ago that I crossed a threshold.
From my two years of illness as an adolescent when I read avidly to pass the time, I yearned to write my own stories. Through my teens and into my early marriage, I pursued that goal in desultory fashion. From time to time I’d attempt a story that I sent to Harper’s Magazine, the Saturday Evening Post and the Atlantic Monthly. After weeks and often months the manuscripts were returned bearing a printed rejection slip.
Over several years Harper’s Magazine rejected at least a dozen of my stories with the same printed rejection. I still recall the wording.
“The volume of manuscripts received is so great that we are obliged, for lack of editorial space, to decline many which are ably written and publishable.”
Then in 1949 my story was returned from Harper’s Magazine with a slight but significant variation: The phrase “ably written and publishable” was underlined.
I cannot describe how that trace of a human hand underlining the final four words in red ink warmed my heart. I carried that folded rejection slip in my wallet for months. When a friend asked how the writing was going, I pulled out the rejection as confirmation that it was indeed going well. After a year of being tugged from my wallet, the slip of paper became dog-eared and fell apart.
That fleeting vestige of a caring heart foreshadowed several more years of rejections. Two or three rejections in a row battered me into hopelessness, and weeks passed without my writing. One year I wrote 10 stories, another year I wrote three.
In 1953 while working at U.S. Steel, returning home one evening I found our table set for a special dinner, a vase with a flower in the center, crystal wine glasses beside our plates.
The reason for celebration was a personal note on one of my stories from Edward Weeks, the distinguished editor of the Atlantic Monthly.
“Thank you for sending your story, ‘The Old Man,’ which we regret not being able to accept. We have been following your submissions with admiration, and we feel sure that before long we will be publishing one of your stories.”
My wife and I toasted that heartwarming letter with several glasses of wine, cheerily anticipating that the next story (surely no more than two or three stories after that) would see me published.
But after that spring-burst of approval, several more years continued the sad procession of rejections. They had begun to be returned with notes suggesting ways to improve the story, and recommending reading other writers, such as Irwin Shaw, Frank O’Connor, Willa Cather.
These years had me changing jobs frequently, struggling to pay bills and support my family. Half a dozen times I put my typewriter away, vowing to my enduring wife that I’d accept the reality of failure and move to something else. But there were also restless nights when my life seemed meaningless, and to combat that void I sat down to write another story.
In the autumn of 1955 I left the steel mills and joined the Chicago real estate firm of Baird & Warner in their Hyde Park office as an apprentice salesman. My first year I managed to sell a few properties, but any future in real estate looked bleak.
In December of 1956, the prospects for our family Christmas seemed austere. I had purchased a puppy for $6, a gift to our sons we hoped would compensate for presents we could not afford.
In my writing I had gradually been turning away from the contrived sagas about gangsters and cowboys I knew nothing about. I drew on my neighborhood and the immigrants in my father’s parish, men with strong calloused hands from the produce markets, somber-faced old women mantled in black like figures from a Greek chorus.
One story I wrote titled “Pericles on 31st Street” told of a Greek street vendor selling hot dogs and peanuts from a cart — a fierce old man with defiant pride who sought to impart that pride to a group of storekeepers being exploited by a landlord they were fearful of confronting.
That December of 1956, all the manuscripts I had submitted to various magazines had been returned except for “Pericles on 31st Street,” which had been with the Atlantic Monthly for several months.
The years had taught me not to allow the time a manuscript took to be returned to raise my hopes. Many submissions were not returned for months while a few, despite my queries, were never sent back.
On the positive side, ever since his encouraging letter three years earlier, Edward Weeks at the Atlantic had been conscientious about returning my manuscripts within a few weeks, each one with a brief note on the reason for rejection.
Three days before Christmas, I sent a telegram to Edward Weeks asking merely for some assurance that my story was being considered.
The following day I returned to the office from showing a house to find a telegram on my desk. I delayed opening it for a while, putting off the shattering reality of rejection. Finally, I opened it and read: “We are buying your story ‘Pericles on 31st Street’ as an Atlantic First. Congratulations and Merry Christmas. Edward Weeks.”
Through the years that have passed since then I have tried to recapture the emotions of that moment. I remember rushing to my car and driving home, shouting as I entered the house. I recall my wife’s fervent tears of joy, my mother who had been living with us since my father’s death in 1951, offering a prayer of thanks to God. Not fully aware of the significance of the occasion, our sons joined the celebration.
Shortly afterwards, leaving my wife to phone my sister in Missouri and my brothers in California, I had to return to the real estate office for an appointment. On the way from South Shore to Hyde Park I stopped briefly at the Rockefeller Chapel on the University of Chicago campus. That lovely cathedral had been a refuge for me before, sometimes just to absorb its soothing ambience. That afternoon sitting in one of the rear pews, I was the only occupant of that cavernous interior.
I thought of my father dead five years and of his faith that I would someday become a writer. There were the years of submissions, the scores of rejections, all the jobs at which I’d failed, how many times I had lost heart and been ready to give up.
I understood that the sale of a single story meant nothing more than a frail beginning, with difficult years still ahead. But in that matchless moment I could not resist a tornado of jubilation. For the first time I grasped the significance of the biblical story of Lazarus, resurrected from the grave.Reprinted from the Chicago Sun-Times