The case of the scribbling professor

Author: Ralph McInerny

© University of Notre Dame Press


Ralph McInerny is the Michael P. Grace chair of philosophy at Notre Dame, where he has taught for 50 years. He has published hundreds of scholarly essays and books, along with short stories, novels and several mystery series. The most well-known of his mysteries are his Father Dowling books. In the following edited excerpt from his just-published memoir I Alone Have Escaped To Tell You: My Life and Pastimes (University of Notre Dame Press), he discusses the beginning of his fiction-writing career.)


At the University of Minnesota and then at Laval Université, at first single and then married, I continued to write. During the months that I was writing my dissertation I was also at work on a novel. Since I never throw anything away, I cannot rewrite such things in memory and lament the loss of something precious. It is penitential for me to even page through those early efforts. There was another novel written in Omaha, and yet another when we moved to South Bend, Indiana, in August 1955. I sat at the dining room table in my bathing trunks because of the ungodly heat and wrote a novel. Over the years I would occasionally write a short story and mail it in, my preferred target being The New Yorker. It would come back, in Thurber’s phrase, like a serve in tennis. What I remember about those years was how episodic my efforts were. After I sent off a story, I would wait as if for news of the Nobel Prize. Rejection was cushioned by no work in progress. I was not serious.

On January 16, 1964, I decided to get serious. We had moved into the house on Portage Avenue in South Bend and were overextended. Getting through the month was depressingly reminiscent of days we thought we had left behind forever. I took on teaching a couple courses at Indiana University in South Bend, adding those to my daily chores at Notre Dame, but this was peanuts. I remembered the copy of Writer’s Digest I had bought in the Los Angeles train station in 1946. I decided that I would write for commercial markets, not just sporadically, but determinedly, every day, and keep at it for a year, after which if I had not sold anything I would admit to myself that I was not really a writer.

And so it began. In the basement was a workbench, unlikely to serve its original purpose for me. It became my desk. It was L-shaped. I plunked my typewriter on the short leg of the L and, standing, began. Every night, after we had put the kids to bed and spent some time together, I would go downstairs and write from 10 until about 2 in the morning. The markets I was chiefly interested in were Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping. Their initial price for a story was a thousand dollars. I sent stories out, but I was always ready with others when they came back. In April I began to get messages on the rejection slips and then a letter from an editor at Redbook, Sandra Earl, telling me “close but no cigar,” and urging me to keep trying.

Those early times at my converted workbench were, I came to see, my apprenticeship. For someone who aspired to write fiction I was almost totally ignorant of how a story is made. The slick magazines operated on the Edgar Allan Poe principle that a story aims at a single effect. No sideshows, nothing that does not contribute to the point of the story. I would sometimes be asked what paragraph three on page seven was meant to do, would read it, find it lovely writing, of course, but also find it effectively idle in the story. Out it went. I was learning that one writes for a reader. Writing is too often described as self-expression. But writing is the art of making a story that will engage and hold and satisfy the interest of the reader. Lint from one’s navel seldom has this effect. I typed a slogan and pinned it over my typewriter. Nobody Owes You A Reading.

What I thought were stories piled up on the workbench. Most went into the mail. With time I began to see why they were rejected. They weren’t stories. And what is a story? An attractive or at least intriguing character faces a crucial choice. The story is the account of his making it, solving his problem, resolving a dilemma. His efforts worsen rather than ease his situation. Eventually he arrives at the dark moment when all seems lost. Then, by his own efforts, plausibly but surprisingly, he succeeds. Story’s over. A variation on this is the villain whose pursuit of his evil goal triumphs over one obstacle after another until, just as ultimate success seems assured, surprisingly but plausibly, he goes down in flames.

Is this formula fiction? Well, you can find this account of imaginative portrayals of human agents in Aristotle’s Poetics. The structure I have just sketched is of course the plot, what gives a narrative a beginning, a middle and an end, in Aristotle’s pithy phrase. Or, in Peter De Vries’s version, a beginning, a muddle, and an end. Plot is not everything, but it is the soul of the story.

I sold my first story before the year was out to Redbook, a story called “The First Farewell.” It was based on my daughters Cathy and Mary’s going to school in Louvain. The themes of the stories I wrote for the magazines were domestic—the kids going to camp, recitals, trouble at school. All I had to do was look around my house and see the germs of stories.

I began publishing under a pseudonym, Ernan Mackey, an anagram on my family name. Why? To keep my fiction separate from my academic career. At the beginning I felt more divided than I did later between two non-overlapping kinds of writing. I went to New York and met the editors with whom I had been corresponding. Sandy Earl took me around the Redbook offices and showed me the reports the fiction department prepared and explained the politicking involved in getting a story accepted. She, I now realized, was my champion there. I watched the receptionist, who served as the first reader of unsolicited manuscripts, draw pages from a manila envelope, read a few lines, let the pages drop back and set it aside for rejection. She took these from what was called the slush pile. It was from that pile that I myself had been plucked. How easily it might not have happened. As often as not, that woman did not have to read more than a few lines to tell whether it was a story or not, and if it was, whether it would be of interest to _Redbook_’s readers. Once taken up by an editor, one sent things directly to her. But it was unnerving to see how narrow the gateway was. All that has changed long since. Few magazines will even open unsolicited manuscripts; the open sesame now is through an agent.

I don’t think it’s harder to get published now, only different. When I began it was common to complain about the number of magazines that had folded. Why, in the good old days . . . All true, no doubt, but so what? There were still plenty of magazines around. As I have come to realize, learning how to sell stories to those magazines forced me to learn the craft of writing. When I did, I managed to redeem most of those non-stories that had piled up beside my typewriter and had been the cause of lots of wasted postage. Now I could read them with a craftsman’s eye and as often as not find the story I had ruined and bring it out of the misshaped marble and redeem it.

I was lucky, of course. Every published writer is the beneficiary of luck. But the luck has to have something to work with. Among my good fortune was the fact that editors began to treat me as if they were my aunts. There were no male editors in the magazine’s fiction departments. On one of my visits to New York, three or four editors from different magazines sat me down in the Algonquin, plied me with manhattans and discussed my career. It was now three years since my big resolution. I was selling stories regularly. One year I sold more stories to Redbook than anyone else ever had, using several pen names. It was the consensus of the group that I was ready for more. I needed an agent.

Reprinted by permission of the University of Notre Dame Press.