Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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What does it mean to be included in the O. Henry Prize Stories? How does an author refine their art? We've given the O. Henry Prize-winning authors free rein to share their thoughts on these questions and others, and the result is a rare treat.

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Comments Robyn Joy Leff

I published a couple of stories with premature enthusiasm in my twenties, but then I took a long, percolating break. Even now, I don't entirely know what I was waiting for, but I suspect it was a story on the level of "Burn Your Maps." Friends often exhorted me to try to publish during those years, but I just wasn't "in love" with my stories. Like a girl steeped in silly romantic notions, I was holding out for The One, for some vague, idealized notion of total soul satisfaction. It took way longer than I expected. It took way longer than I would have liked. And, of course, it wasn't entirely satisfying. But so it goes.

This story, which was born from something I can't even name, came through me, like a train on an invisible track, rather than from my own design. It sounds like hoo-ha if you've never experienced such a thing. I sent it to The Atlantic Monthly first, because it was my largest dream. Three months later, when I was at the furthest reaches of hope, Mike Curtis left a message on my answering machine. It would embarrass me greatly if anyone knew how many times I listened to his message. He merely said he was considering my piece. But he used the phrase "quite a good story," and that alone got me through quite a few lonely nights.

Even after publication, however, my grateful giddiness was accompanied by an unshakable nausea. My wares--in the form of this incredibly fragile-seeming family making a go at tenuous communication--were being dragged out into the world. Yet, it soon became clear that Connor, Alise and Wes were far more ready for it than I.

When one writes in a vacuum for so long, it's quite shocking to suddenly receive public reaction to your work. One day, a man called me from a train station in New Jersey to say he had missed his stop because he had to read to the end of my story. Oh my God, I'd done it: I'd touched a man on a train. Suddenly, I wondered why in the world I ever questioned wanting to be a writer. The power, the ecstasy, the sudden mysterious link with strangers in New Jersey. . . .

Well, for a minute, anyway. The thing is, that even if you've been published in The Atlantic--and then been sent further reeling by The O. Henry Prize Stories editor--you still have your same uncertain life to live the next day. You still have those same profoundly blank pages before you. You still have to wait like a blithering fool to fall in love again.

Writing Tips

I would like to think I could do better than a Nike® copywriter, but I'm not sure I can. "Just do it" might be hopelessly facile, but it's the truth. You can talk about writing, read about it, jive about it, analyze the hell out of it, but it doesn't mean a thing unless you get in your chair (or on the floor cross-legged, which is my weirdness) and do it. Although what "it" might be, exactly, is never entirely clear. Near as I can tell, a writer's job is to just sit there and get cranky, angry, tearful, lonely, bored stiff (for some ugly reason this is essential), physically stiff, gray-haired, red-eyed and decrepit. And when you've been beaten into a near-comatose stupor, beyond all conscious, rational thought, beyond any hope of over-riding control or even making sense, maybe some characters will start to come to life. Or maybe not. Then repeat, ad infinitum.

About the Author

Robyn Joy Leff was born in Ohio to a physicist father and schoolteacher mother. She grew up in Cleveland, Chicago, California and Tennessee, before heading to Hampshire College in Massachusetts at age sixteen. She later received a degree in Media Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her short stories have appeared in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, Zyzzyva, and Quarterly West. She lives, among the love of many dogs, in Los Angeles, where she writes press kits for Hollywood movies to make a living.

Writer's Desk

  • Robyn Joy Leff is currently at work on several new short stories and a novel.

  • Writer's Desk

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