Pushcart Before The Workhorse

by Sheri Boggs

For a writer, the idea of seeing your short story in the newest issue of McSweeney's -- not to mention receiving a Pushcart Prize nomination for it -- is a bit like being the literary equivalent of a rock star. Pushcart Prize stories are often taught in hundreds of college English and lit courses; McSweeney's - the brainchild of former Might editor and Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius author Dave Eggers - is arguably the hippest and most widely read literary magazine of the decade. To be published there means suddenly you're on a new level, and that everyone else knows it. You get to swagger a little, pretend you're the love child of Steven Tyler and Margaret Atwood and run red lights imagining how you'll answer questions about your "body of work" at cocktail parties. There's a good reason why Anne Lamott once likened publication to getting your own "big plate of cocaine."

But some -- for instance, Shann Ferch, associate professor in the doctoral program in Leadership Studies at G.U. and a writer currently experiencing the above scenario -- are keeping their egos in check and allowing themselves just a modicum of quiet satisfaction.

"It's so strange," he says. "It's really cool, but it's also kind of surreal because I sent that story out a long time ago and to a lot of different places."

While it seems like an incredible streak of luck, Ferch's achievement is not so much the triumphant third scratch of a lottery ticket as it is the result of years of study, diligence and hard work. "The Great Divide" (published under his nom de plume Shann Ray) is a haunting tale of one man's lonely life in Montana during the height of the "Empire Builder" days. In its depictions of the Montana Rockies, of skin split from fighting and moments of kindness half-remembered, "The Great Divide" also symbolically represents how we are divided from ourselves and each other, and even from the landscape around us. In Ferch's story, only love - even seemingly inconsequential acts of agape - can breach the wound. Ferch says that he has worked on the story on and off for about the last five years, including three years of running it through a variety of writing workshops and submitting it for the Raymond Carver Award. While the story was subsequently published in the award's online magazine Carve, Ferch still collected a nice little pile of rejection slips for it before getting the call from McSweeney's.

Ferch's secret advantage as a writer comes from a decidedly unwriterly direction. While books were always important to him growing up, his family's first love was sports. Ferch played guard for Pepperdine in the late '80s and was such a standout he went on to play in Germany's top professional league.

"Certain things about basketball carried over when I started writing," he says. "One is the idea of just putting in the hours, and that's a way of thinking about writing that's really helped me." Accordingly, for the last five years, Ferch has worked in the Leadership Studies program at G.U. during the day while taking classes in EWU's MFA in Creative Writing Program at night.

"When I started, I had a ready bank of stories that stunk," he says. "I knew they stunk, but I also had a hard time doing what my instructors said to do to make them better. But over the years I've learned that when I completely submit, when I listen to what they have to say and fully follow their advice, all the stories just get better and better."

His dogged determination has paid off. "The Great Divide" is the very first story in McSweeney's issue no. 12 (which also includes a fetching hippo stereogram, microfiction by Douglas Coupland and Rick Moody and twelve new stories by undiscovered writers, including Ferch/Ray). Ferch recently returned from the new issue's release party in San Francisco, where his wife Jennifer played music in the spaces between the words of Ferch's reading. He also had a chance to meet Dave Eggers, as well as hear some astonishing news.

"I was out on the sidewalk talking to Eli [Horowitz, managing editor of McSweeney's] and Dave Eggers joined us. He knew the story really well - I wasn't sure how involved he was with the content - and he said to me 'Hey, are you sure that story's not a novel? It's really well developed.' And that's when Eli says "Oh, we just wanted to let you know we nominated your story for the Pushcart Prize."

Most of all, Ferch was impressed with visiting the McSweeney's offices and finding there a level of dedication that comes close to matching his own.

"I appreciated just being there and picking up on the subtleties of how they work," he says. "Historically they haven't paid any of their authors. The money just goes back into the costs of making the magazine. It was really inspiring to see people just doing their thing for art, not to make a bunch of money."

Publication date: 1/22/04

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