Briley Jones wrote his first story in eighth grade. It was a short piece of fiction for a class assignment about the transcontinental railroad. He turned the piece into a murder mystery, an homage to “Murder on the Orient Express.” He thought it was pretty good — until his teacher called it out in front of the whole class as an example of what not to do.
“She didn’t like it that much. She said it was too violent,” Jones said, “so then I just kind of stopped writing.”
That instance of derision nearly stifled his will to write. It wasn’t until Jones entered Cameron University in 2016 that he began to explore the world of fiction again. Earlier this year he published his first short story in Night Picnic Journal out of New York City.
The piece, entitled “Minnie,” was published in Volume II, Issue II of the journal. It was his first professionally published work of fiction. He had written the work specifically to submit to the journal, which prides itself on publishing “fantasies with multidimensional metaphysical meanings.”
“Minnie” is a surreal tale about a man who loses his daughter and then abandons his family in the middle of the night to travel west to preach the gospel. Jones drew inspiration for the story from Cormac McCarthy’s novel “No Country for Old Men.”
“(The novel) has those sections in it where he does those monologues, and I always thought those were a bit weird and interesting,” Jones said.
While publishing is a big first step for any aspiring writer, Jones felt like the success was a validation of his writing. One that went a long way to shaking off the old wound he had suffered in middle school. But the real validation was yet to come.
A few days ago, Jones received a letter from Night Picnic Journal.
“The mailman brought the letter up to the door. I had already gotten my contributor’s copy from the journal, so I was wondering what this one was because I had been published, like, four months before,” Jones said. “I opened it and it was the newest journal. I just thought ‘oh, OK, they just sent me the most recent one.’ But it had this letter stuck in the middle of it. When I read it, I just started shaking.”
That letter from the journal was to inform him that his short story was being nominated for one of the most prestigious awards for young authors, the Pushcart Prize.
The Pushcart Prize began in 1976 as a way to recognize writers, poets and essayists publishing in small journals and magazines. The prize was named among the most influential projects in the history of American publishing by Publishers Weekly.
Among the writers who have received recognition through the prize are Raymond Carver, Mona Simpson and Brandon Hobson. It was through Hobson that Jones first heard about the Pushcart Prize.
Hobson, a native Oklahoman and finalist for the 2018 National Book Award, won the Pushcart Prize in 2016 for his short story “Past the Econolodge.” Jones purchased a copy of the original journal that the story had been published in and read through it. It was then that he knew the Pushcart Prize was something he wanted to aim for. He made a vow to himself that he would be nominated for the prize before he turned 30.
He would fulfill that vow before he turned 22.
“I mean, I don’t know how to wrap my head around it. Ever since I got the letter I’ve been thinking about it. This is the first year I’ve ever been published in anything and now I’m nominated for the Pushcart,” Jones said.
Jones credits two of his professors at Cameron, Leah Chaffins and John Morris, for helping him come into his own as a writer. Unlike in middle school when his writing was held up to the class as an example of what not to do, his professors in Cameron’s English department have been nothing but supportive.
“Professor Chaffins really lets people be creative when they’re writing. She has allowed me to stretch out my writing and try different things. Dr. Morris has always pushed me to take more time with my writing, and that has really helped a lot,” Jones said.
Jones is on track to graduate from Cameron in May 2020. He has already applied to graduate school and plans to enroll in an MFA program to pursue his masters in fiction writing. He has applied to 14 schools, and he believes he may one day want to become a creative writing teacher himself.
For now, Jones is focusing on his writing and has a new goal in mind now that he has achieved his first.
“Now I want to win the Pushcart Prize and be published in their anthology before I’m 30,” Jones said.