From “Tell It Slant,” Excerpt #2: Encouraging Rejections

(Excerpt #1 is here.)

In the spring of 1956 — Chuck was in eighth grade — orders came for the family to  leave an Air Force base in California. His father, now a major, was aircraft commander of one of the largest bombers ever, the B-36.

Click was assigned to join a squadron of these bombers at Ramey Air Force Base, in the northwest corner of Puerto Rico. These planes flew long missions — often reportedly carrying nuclear bombs — likely around the periphery of the Soviet Union and “Red” China, though their course was secret too.

Some of the Puerto Rico experiences were pivotal for Chuck, in several ways.

For one thing, since there was no local English-language TV service, Chuck was perforce obliged to wean himself from TV, and thereby transferred almost all his
free time to reading. Here he had help from the Caribbean climate and the Air Force: Puerto Rico was continually hot and humid, with frequent rainstorms (and a major hurricane, Betsy, in late 1956); air conditioning was still a rare luxury.

Yet the Air Force, flush with Cold War money, had allocated some funds to raising its personnel’s cultural level with new base libraries. One such, brand new, soon opened at Ramey. It was outfitted not only with books, but also with a big high-fidelity record player, a wide selection of the new 12-inch LP records, and — mirabile dictu — central air conditioning!

Thus, the library quickly became Chuck’s refuge and — whenever-possible — his favorite destination. It was there that he idly picked up a record album bearing the name Beethoven (which he mainly knew from an occasional Peanuts cartoon). Chuck asked the librarian to play it.

It was Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (Opus 61), and hearing it changed Chuck’s musical life. He returned to listen to it again so many times that the librarian finally directed him to try something else: so he moved on to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. (Here also began Chuck’s life-long penchant for listening to favorite pieces repeatedly, whenever the mood strikes.)

Then, in the fall of 1957, yet another new door opened: on the second day of tenth grade, at Ramey High School, Chuck’s English teacher, James Brown (no, not the pop/soul singer) — hoping to get a snapshot of his students’ interests and skill — had each student compose an impromptu essay.

The following day, Mr. Brown (who had a flair for the dramatic) entered the classroom, carrying the handwritten papers. Stopping in front of Chuck’s desk, Mr. Brown paused for long enough to be sure the entire class was paying attention, then dropped Chuck’s theme on the desk, and announced dramatically:
“Fager, you have a future in writing.”

Ramey AFB High, in the 1950s.

There was no drum roll, no trumpets. (And Chuck has no recall of what he had written. But in a biopic, there would at least be some portentous background music; perhaps the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth?)

Nevertheless, soon thereafter, one harbinger of that future emerged: Chuck
found a small looseleaf notebook and an old typewriter and began what he called
his Little Black Book. In it, hunting and clacking on the stiff typewriter keys, he
wrote a series of brief satirical pieces about the school’s principal and some teach-

When he showed the book to a fellow student, the classmate chuckled aloud
and passed it on. Even — Chuck noted breathlessly — some girls seemed to like it.
But, noticing the anomalous and suspicious giggles, a teacher soon spotted and
grabbed the notebook.

Shortly, Chuck was pulled out of class into the office of the principal — Mr. Hiskey — who let Chuck sweat in the outer office for awhile, then called him in and pointed
to the “little black book,” lying open on his big desk.

Chuck remembered perspiring some more. He watched the principal browse through the notebook, and his apprehension grew.

But then Mr. Hiskey snickered!

Picking up the book, he told Chuck that some of it — even parts about himself — were funny enough that he couldn’t bring himself to impose punishment. Returning the book, Mr. Hiskey told Chuck to limit his passing it around to after school hours, so the book would not end up on the principal’s desk again.

This was not to be the last time that, by truth-telling — and telling it slant — Chuck dodged a possible catastrophe.

At that point in his life, Chuck knew nothing about Emily Dickinson. But her anthem from which emerged our title, “Tell the truth, but tell it slant,” should have been playing in the high school PA system as Chuck walked back to class, maybe set to music by the other James Brown — the rising rock-and-roll phenom.

Or would a better lyric have been the quip attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw, and a couple of others: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” Over many succeeding decades, Chuck would have ample opportunity to revisit and apply this prescient career strategy of truth-telling tempered with humor. . . .

A recollection from the Introduction to Tell It Slants Bibliography, of:

”. . . my very first rejection slip. That I recall clearly, as it was from the New Yorker. Probably late 1957, or maybe early 1958.

The New Yorker, May 1958

What possessed me to send them something? And what was it? Not a clue. . . .

I sent it from the air base in Puerto Rico, where the new (air-conditioned) library. . . was about the only place I would have seen the New Yorker.

But what had I read in it? The short stories mostly would have baffled me (still); I wasn’t yet paying attention to the news they reported on, and their ads for opulent gewgaws were way over my head.

Most likely it was the cartoons, though I’d also miss the point of many of them. (But not all: today, as a longtime subscriber, I searched some 1957-58 issues online and found a cartoon of Noah, on the Ark, playing shuffleboard with some of the animals; now that could have made me chuckle. )

And I might well have hefted a thick dark blue copy of The Writer’s Handbook, already a venerated standard reference, with many concise chapters, by editor-publisher A.S. Burack. It would have had instructions about the need for a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) for returns.

A 1950s vintage edition

In any case, I put some sheets (maybe hand-written — I believe Burack said some — a diminishing number — of magazines would still accept such submissions) in an envelope, added the folded SASE and sent it off.

Did I spend the next weeks in anxious suspense? Whatever; soon, my mother handed me the creased return envelope, with maybe two three-cent stamps on it.

Its thickness made clear my sheets were inside. But when I lifted them out, a slip of paper fell out also. I read, and still remember it nearly word for word:

“Although your submission does not meet our current editorial needs . . .” it said, plainly and bloodlessly; it’s what Burack had told me to expect, especially at first. But the rest was unexpected: “ … we thank you for sending it. You write with a facility which has held our attention.”

That was it.

And I was thrilled.

A rejection, but with encouragement! I had held their attention long enough to qualify for the upbeat rejection slip.

Thereafter I received my share of other rejection slips; even kept some as samples for a while. None matched that one in the nine striving years between its arrival and the first paid acceptance, from a much different outlet. I occasionally fingered them, and was inwardly defiant – “Yeah, you didn’t take my submission. But so what – at fifteen, I held their attention at the New Yorker.”

I was even once mentioned in their columns: in the April 10, 1965 issue, in a long “Letter from Selma,” by Renata Adler, one of their stalwarts. She was standing on the edge of U.S. Highway 80, east of the Pettus Bridge, in Dallas County, Alabama, resplendent in a colorful sun dress and large-brimmed billowing sun hat.

Adler was suitably slim and suitably elegant for fair weather in Manhattan, but anomalous to the point of weird on the rough Dixie gravel: a truant zinnia repotted in a rural slum, with local whites shouting curses from used car lots behind her and army jeeps whizzing past, bearing watchful troops in drab green and rifles. Scribbling in a notebook, she asked me a couple of questions as I trudged by, a bit anomalous myself as a white among the mostly Black marchers.

But if that’s my one appearance in those august columns, there have ben many others elsewhere, which are  summarize and categorize concisely in this book’s Bibliography. As every article has a backstory, I’ll work to quell the constant urge to fill those in, to keep this book from becoming the massive doorstop it threatens to. But if curious readers follow an urge to dig more of them out, I hope the result could be something of which they could say, it too was written with a facility which had held their attention.

Tell It Slant is available now, in paperback & Kindle versions. Details here.

3 thoughts on “From “Tell It Slant,” Excerpt #2: Encouraging Rejections”

  1. You were lucky it was Beethoven’s best work. My first was Peter Panda playing a Chopin Polonaise.

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