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Disappointment and Rededication

Fifteen years ago, I was a senior English major, on the verge of graduating with honors from Michigan State University. I had co-founded Q-News, MSU’s first literary magazine for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and allied students, led its staff to a well-received presentation at the national “Creating Change” Conference, and was close to finishing a novel that would serve as my creative senior honor’s thesis. What was my topic? It’s hard to narrow it down to a brief, polite blurb, but in a nutshell, here it is:

In the late 90s at a large Midwestern university (read: Michigan State), three young gay friends find themselves coping with the sudden, brutal killing of a fellow gay student (read: Matthew Shepard). On a cold autumn night when they are at their lowest emotional point, the wrong obnoxious drunk straight guy stumbles up and says the magic words to trigger the main character’s uncontrollable, pent-up rage. In that moment, he loses control, beats the living shit out of this random foil, and has to face the consequences of becoming the violent, irrational creature he has always hated and feared.

To guide my work, I asked the most rigorous critic of my writing, Professor Arthur Athanason, to be my faculty advisor. Among his students, Arthur (sadly deceased since 2005) was loved and hated; he ripped apart our writing with a blue ballpoint pen pressed so hard into the paper that I could see and feel his many, many comments on the other side of the page. He cajoled us, questioned our assumptions, and generally pushed students to write with the most compact, succinct choice of words possible. I can still hear him telling us, “I want you to cut off the fat and give me the meat. Let the cream rise to the surface, and then throw away the milk.” I’m starting with this brief aside about Arthur because as I wrote my novel and shared with him its chapters, where I expected his heavy-handed criticism, instead he gave me gentle encouragement—genuine curiosity about where I would take the characters, questions about the subtle nuances of their actions and relationships, and affirmation to keep writing, push ahead, and be confident in my literary voice.

With a manuscript tucked under my arm, I left the Midwest for New York University’s publishing institute in the summer of 2000. I had been inspired by my achievements at Michigan State, by the affirmation I’d received, and of course by the belief of my harshest critic that my work would stand out. New York, however, soon showed me that the profession might not be for me. My idealism about social change through the written and spoken word meant practically nothing in the profit-minded publishing industry, and if I was going to make poverty-level wages, I at least wanted to know my work would make a difference in people’s lives.

I went home to Michigan, but during my summer in Manhattan, I’d at least had some promising encounters concerning my novel. A publisher from an independent press agreed to read my sample chapters, knowing the content didn’t fit his line. His handwritten note to me said, “The material is good. Don’t get discouraged.” I also met a gay literary agent working for a big, well-known firm. This had to be my break! He was friendly and open to reading my materials, which I sent without hesitation. I dropped them off in person before leaving New York, and then I waited… and waited… and waited. During that time, I held off from shopping it anywhere else. I was sure this guy would see the potential and give me a chance. Several months later, I received his breezily polite email, apologizing for the delay and then telling me bluntly that he found the material neither interesting nor compelling. That was it, and I felt crushed, insignificant, and foolish for thinking I had something worthwhile to say to a broader audience. I put the manuscript away and didn’t seriously think about submitting it anywhere else.

While I was waiting for that reply, however, I did come to another realization. When I took stock and thought about what would truly inspire my work, I came back to my enthusiasm for positive change in the LGBT community and I realized that a number of my closest role models had M.S.W. degrees. I looked into social work and applied for admission again at Michigan State, and when I finished that degree, I found job opportunities in both HIV and LGBT higher education (i.e., student affairs). An HIV/AIDS organization in Minnesota offered me a job first, so there I went.

It would be easy to say the rest is history, as far as my professional trajectory, but that would be far too simplistic for what’s actually transpired. Should I have stayed focused on my writing, applied for an M.F.A. program somewhere, or swallowed my pride and stayed in New York, struggling for a breakthrough and some recognition? Possibly, but instead I went on to do some valuable work in HIV services, first in Michigan and later in Minnesota. In that sense, I never really stopped writing. I recreated my grassroots magazine format for a sexual health program targeting gay men, contributed a number of sexual and psychosocial health articles for our program’s other publications, reinvigorated a large volunteer program, and authored the only successful application for direct CDC funding in my organization’s history. When I started work on my Ph.D., my written assignments were very well received, and I have authored or co-authored a decent number of research articles.

Still, it’s been hard not to wonder, what if I hadn’t given up so quickly on that novel? What if I had freelanced for a while, writing about topics that didn’t really interest me in exchange for getting my name out there? What if I had kept writing on the side when I was working in nonprofits? Why didn’t I? (Well, that part I understand. The emotional exhaustion from office and community politics took their toll, and I lost a lot of energy for doing anything creative for a few years, pre-Doctoral program.)

This long, self-indulgent piece is coming to you mainly because today, I learned that I didn’t get the fellowship that I hoped would fund my research for the Randy Shilts biography. I can’t help but reflect back on the past fifteen years because then, facing what felt like a similar rejection to my novel, I packed it in and committed to social work. Yet, without social work, I wouldn’t be where I am now, positioned for a Ph.D. in the coming months and readying myself to take on a book project of this magnitude. Today left me with a jumble of emotions—sinking disappointment and embarrassment, self-flagellation for even thinking I could convince a National Endowment for the Humanities review panel of my qualifications for this research, fear over what I’ll do for income starting in June… and the gnawing trepidation that if I put off the book for now (for the sake of securing steady work in academia or nonprofits), I’ll lose this next opportunity.

What came next opened my eyes, though. I remembered coming across stories of the money Randy borrowed to write And the Band Played On, the doubt he encountered from colleagues who told him not to write it, that no one cared about AIDS, and it wouldn’t attract an appreciable audience. Imagine the world today if he hadn’t persevered. Imagine if he hadn’t argued for the newsworthiness of HIV/AIDS and the LGBT community’s challenges at the time, if he hadn’t raised the public’s awareness of how systematically the U.S. had failed so many people through inaction and political calculation. Randy’s story, going back to his younger days when no one knew his name, is in large part about struggle. As I started thinking ahead, contacting my colleagues about potential teaching and consulting gigs, I found myself getting motivated—determined more than ever to see this through. If that motivation is in part about having Randy’s full life story accounted for in print, it’s also personal for me in that I don’t know what will unfold if I don’t see this book through to finish.

I need to see it through to finish. For the time being, that means turning this disappointment and self-doubt into a chip on the shoulder, a fuel for my motivation and a challenge to be resourceful and resolute (maybe a crowdfunding web site?). I’ve encountered so many green lights in the buildup of this project that inevitably, disappointment would come at some point. A temporary setback, however, is not a car wreck. It wouldn’t hurt, though—if you see me out and about in the next couple weeks—to share a pat on the back and some words of confidence and encouragement. To paraphrase an old co-worker, “One ‘attaboy’ is worth about four ‘ya dumb shits’.”


About Michael Lee

South Minneapolis queer writer, researcher, educator, and social change enthusiast. Currently researching and writing a biography of the late journalist Randy Shilts.

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