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Guest Blogger Luke Reynolds: Keep Going

I have a treat for you guys today. A special look at one of the introductory essays of Luke Reynolds new book KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON: NOTES ON WRITING (AND LIVING) WITH HOPE. I hope his words resonate with you as they did with me. You can find Luke at his website and blog and the book at Amazon and B&N. Enjoy!

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In "Keep Calm and Query On," Luke Reynolds discusses his journey as a writer with all of its bludgeoning defeats and small triumphs. Against the backdrop of life abroad in York, England, these reflections on living and writing pulse with hope, wisdom, and conviction.

Luke's journey as a writer is accompanied by 14 interviews he has conducted with powerful and prolific authors, including Jane Smiley, Daniel Handler
(a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), George Saunders, Lindsey Collen, and David Wroblewski. They discuss their worst rejections, their first publications, what keeps them motivated, and why they believe in the power of words.

Luke Reynolds HeadshotKeep Going

By Luke Reynolds

I was one of those kids who always loved writing—finding secret places to scribble poems when the house was chaotic with noise, babies crying, my father’s farting and burping, the dull roar of television. I had a tree fort in the back yard, and in one corner of it I nailed three small, flat boards to make a tiny desk. I brought up a miniature play-chair and sat it in front of that makeshift desk and could feel pine needles tickle my face as I wrote poems. I was seven.

The thing about writing when you’re seven is that you don’t care about publishing. Your mind doesn’t conjure up images of book covers, how your name will look on them, advance amounts, various imprints of various houses, and any kind of bestseller list. When you’re seven, all that seems to matter is the work. The writing. The story. The poem.

Whenever I finished a poem in that tree fort desk, I would read it out loud and, I’ll confess, I would tell myself (also aloud) something to the effect of, Damn! That’s pretty awesome! That’s like the most awesome poem that has ever been written. And there was no one to disagree with me. The pines certainly did nothing but applaud as the wind tickled them, tickling me.

And there’s a certain kind of delight—joy, really—that accompanies creation in this manner. The ignorance of writing for writing’s sake alone kept me coming back to my writer’s desk in that corner of the tree fort. Why not come back, after all? I didn’t get e-mails up there telling me a certain poem was ill-imagined, or trite, or just plain sub-par. I kept coming back to the corner desk because I knew that poems would emerge from my hand and that they would make me smile. I didn’t need anyone else to smile for them to be worthwhile. I didn’t need recognition, money (Mom supplied all the quarters I could carry for lollipops and candy bars at the local gas station), or critical acclaim. All I needed, in short, was the words.

Years later, as a young teacher fresh out of college and working with high school students at a public school in Connecticut, I still loved poetry. But my writing hopes had grown to entail fiction (short stories and novels) and non-fiction (everything from the personal narrative to academic research on the role of the imagination). The world of publishing had lured my heart and I had begun the journey towards obsession: become published! Get your words into print! Without it you’re nothing! I still loved words, but behind the love—underneath the love, oozing up like moss at the base of a tree—was the secret hope that I would become a famous bestselling author.

So it came as a shock when one of my early poems received a curt rejection note:

Dear Mr. Reynolds:

I have read your poem.

No thanks.

Sincerely,

William Slaughter

I read the name over and over again. Slaughter. Indeed, an apt description for how I felt. But this was only the first in a long, long (long) line of rejections that came (and which still come, on an almost daily basis). As all writers know, it was the appetizer of what is a part of every writer’s meal: rejection. Constant, consistent rejection.

One of my most trying periods as a writer was after I had co-edited two anthologies and signed a contract for my first book on teaching. I had started to see doors open, and my heart leaped at the possibilities of sharing words that might be meaningful to others, while also helping to put food on the table. So I tried even harder to write more, send out more work, knock on more doors. And then an odd thing happened: expecting to find more success—even if intermittent—I found less. Everything I sent out seemed to come back with “No thanks” in some manner of words. Pages and pages rolled off my fingertips, but none of it garnered the nod from the all-powerful editors from whom I sought significance.

And then something broke. The first sting that I felt from Mr. William Slaughter, long ago, came back to trap me entirely, with those relentless voices: you’ll never make it. You call yourself a writer? What have you really accomplished? Really? The kid at the corner desk among pine needles had been forgotten, left to his own musings in a world where the words of seven year olds carry power and meaning and weight and faith. But returning to such a world—albeit with a bit more savvy—was exactly what I needed. Perhaps such a return to the words themselves is exactly what you need, too—a return to faith in yourself as a writer and a dreamer and a creator.

This book includes my own journey—both past and present—with all of its ups and downs, it vulnerabilities and its strengths. I share openly my own bludgeoning defeats and small triumphs, and in the process, it is my hope that you’ll find the words of CS Lewis to be accurate: “We read to know we’re not alone.” In reading through my journey, may you find some footsteps of your own, and know that you are not alone.

You have a story to tell. Many stories. And should you allow rejection to get the better of you, that story will forever remain untold, unushered into the world of possibility in which we live. And for a writer, it’s impossible to survive like that. You’ve been given stories because you need to tell them. Period. If you need to regain lost ground, start by letting the pines hear your words. Then, as you gain confidence and faith, begin again to send your work into the world.

I recall meeting Nobel-Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney for a reading he gave in Oxford, England many years ago. He read his poetry with delight, a wide smile never leaving his face. Watching the wrinkled lines that ran up and down his cheeks, it was impossible not to think, here’s a guy who loves what he does. Afterwards, I chatted with him and I asked him to write a note to my father, who had written a novel and struggled to find a home for it for many, many years. I asked the great poet to scribble some words that I might bring back home to my dad in an effort to spur on his faith in words—his faith in himself. Mr. Heaney thought for a while, then gave me a sharp look, uncapped his pen and wrote the following: Keep going. Then he handed me the paper, looked me in the eye, and said, “That’s all that really matters, don’t you think?”

And now, years later, I do. Mr. Heaney, of course, was right. That’s all that really matters. No amount of success, approval, rejection, fear, loathing, worry, acclaim, or anything else should interfere with the most essential of all exhortations for the writer. Today and everyday may you and I make the essential decision that every writer must make on a daily basis.

Keep going.

Luke Reynolds is the author of A Call to Creativity (Teachers College Press, 2012) and is co-editor of both Burned In (Teacher College Press, 2011, with Audrey Friedman) and Dedicated to the People of Darfur (Rutgers University Press, 2009, with his wife Jennnifer Reynolds). Luke is represeneted by the remarkably wise and kind Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency. His writing has also appeared in The Believer, The Writer, The Sonora Review, The Hartford Courant, Arizona Daily Sun, Mutuality, Hunger Mountain, and Tucson Weekly. He has taught English in public schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and has also taught Composition at Northern Arizona University. He and his wife, Jennifer, have one son, Tyler. They love family dancing to the oldies in their current home in York, England.

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18 comments:

  1. so inspirational. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to just keep going. Thanks so much for sharing your story Luke and congrats! Fabulous guest post!

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  2. Love the title. Love the idea. Love the picture.

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  3. Katie, so true! To keep going sometimes feels like THE only real obstacle--of which every other small obstacle is a part. Thanks Theresa! My wife and I have the original poster of KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON hanging on our wall, and I swear when I see it now, it says "Query" instead of "Carry"...

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  4. Ha, William Slaughter! Poetic indeed. Thanks Luke for the positivity.

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  5. Jessie, indeed! What a name for an acquisitions editor, ey?

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  6. Keep Going. Two simple words yet their weight really couldn't be valued by things a hand can hold. After all, a hand can't hold a dream, something ever-changing, morphing, bubbling from the mind. And to receive a reminder to Keep Going, well...that's exactly what I'll do.

    Thank you :-)

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  7. Thanks for the post it is inspirational! I have a mug with the 'KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON' motto on - I'm sure I'll always see 'QUERY' now as well!

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  8. Thanks for this post by Luke. I needed the inspiration and positivity badly as querying is a daunting and nerve wracking business.

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  9. Great idea for a book - I never tire of reading these inspiring stories. And I especially love Luke's family photo!

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  10. Thanks for sharing the inspiration Luke. It's so easy to want to just give up when there are so many "no's". Good luck with your book.

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  11. Hello!!! I physically winced reading the rejection letter from Mr Slaughter. Winced and felt sick. :-( thank heavens for the glorious and sublime Seamus Heaney and his wise, wise words! Thank you for sharing! :-)

    Take care
    x

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  12. Wow, I really needed to read this today. Keep going... I'll do just that.

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  13. Angela: Amen! Suzanne, my wife and I have the mug as well--nice to have some coffee from a place with that motto on it--and yay for seeing "query" there from now on! Rachna, I think we all need that constant encouragement to keep going; I certainly need it every single day. Often, I write TO myself just to tell myself to keep writing (sometimes, yes, to myself). Thanks Kristin! Natalie, the word "no" is a tough one to hear again and again...makes the rare "yes" feel like heaven and earth are shaking, huh? Old Kitty, your reaction about sums up my reaction too! Ali, glad you're going to keep going. It's an act of real courage, I think.

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  14. What a great book title! And what a painful rejection letter. Your guest post gives me hope.

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  15. What a great guest post! Love the post and your book title! Keep going is exactly right. Great inspiration !

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  16. I SO enjoyed this post! I immediately went to my Amazon account and put Luke's book in my shopping cart! :)
    Thanks for sharing the story and inspiring us in our journeys. Can't wait to read the book.

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  17. A writer can't stop writing he/she has to remember what brought them to the page to begin with. I recently started shopping my first novel, my favorite rejection so far is, "Not for us, thanks." Nothing else. Of course, I was crushed, but the following week I had personal rejection letter. The agent took the time to tell me what she liked and why it wasn't for her agency. It still wasn't what I wanted to read but it' wasn't so cold, and gave e a glimmer of hope. I'm sure I'll collect several more rejections along the way. It's brutal but part of the process. If you had given up you wouldn't be here inspiring us just staring out.. Gracias.

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  18. Beth, Mart, and Carmen, thanks for your comments! Brenda, great note on remembering what brought us to the page to begin with. May it keep bring us back again, and again, and again, and again...

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