Why The First Straw?
It’s not uncommon, when frustrated or angry, to shout, “That’s the last straw!”
But what about the first straw? I never gave it any thought until I was digging into a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread one afternoon at a local sandwich shop. I wasn’t planning to eavesdrop, although I confess I do so at times. But that is a different type of eavesdropping, deliberate and with the purpose of getting a feel for “voice” and language patterns (not a bad idea for any writer of fictional dialogue).
This time, hearing the conversation at the booth adjacent to my table was unavoidable. An earnest young man was explaining his motivation for going to college to an older couple. Apparently the young man was just beginning his studies and was being sponsored–or at least advised–by the couple.
The prospective student launched into a description of why he’d left home and what had brought him to our university town.
“What I always wanted was a brother, a dog, and a real family–a home. But I didn’t get it. So, that was my can of beans.”
I perked up. Can of beans? Perfect. I love it when I hear someone describe something in unusual terms. Next, he said, “Had to call my stepmom Mamma Jane, but that just didn’t flow. You know, sounded like a restaurant with a woman’s name. That was the first straw.”
The cafe was crowded and I was getting pointed stares that said, “You are finished with your lunch. Get the hell out of here and let us have that table,” so I never heard what the student’s last straw was, but I couldn’t get the idea of a first straw out of my mind. What is the first straw, anyway? For me, it was a pointer to a new direction–that moment when I realized things had to change, and the responsibility for that change rested with me.
Since I write, and want to hear from writers–or those who are friendly to writers–I will share my first straw with you. No, it wasn’t the 38 rejections of my first novel; it wasn’t a publisher who cut my neat, 21 personal narratives book to 17 and left me to explain to four angry women why their stories wouldn’t be in the book when it came out. It wasn’t an editor who told me the memoir I’d written of my parents’ life on a sheep ranch in Wyoming was “unrealistic.” She thought she was reading a novel? It wasn’t even the publishers who said they loved my latest novel, but thought it was too regional. Well, okay, it was set in Kentucky, not Manhattan, but really?
No, my first straw was when an editor responded to my query letter by requesting that, instead of the usual sample chapter or two, she wanted the entire manuscript of my latest novel–all 350 pages. It was to be a hard copy, double spaced, one side only, and packaged just so. It was expensive and cumbersome, but I sent it as requested. Afterall, not everyone likes to read from a computer screen, and I was under the illusion she intended to read it. Wrong.
On what had to have been the day she received it–unless some angel hand-carried it to her ten minutes after I dropped it off at the post office–she fired off an email that was so off the wall I question if she opened the package, let alone read the first few pages. My best guess is she had it confused with something she’d dreamed the night before.
That was my first straw, and that was when I decided to self-publish, even though I’m aware of all the drawbacks. I suspect we all have a first straw–a defining moment. What’s yours? Hit that first straw yet?