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!
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.
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.
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.
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.