Kath here. Please welcome Luke Reynolds to WU today. He’s the author of the delightful anthology KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON: NOTES ON WRITING (AND LIVING) WITH HOPEwhich has been selected as one of Publisher Weekly’s best books for writers:
Author Luke Reynolds reflects on forging his own writing life and interviews fourteen other authors—including Jane Smiley, Daniel Handler, Robert Pinsky, George Saunders, Lindsey Collen, and David Wroblewski—about their worst rejections, their first publications, what keeps them motivated, and why they believe in the power of words.
He’s also the author of A CALL TO CREATIVITY: WRITING, READING, AND INSPIRING STUDENTS IN AN AGE OF STANDARDIZATION and co-editor of both BURNED IN and DEDICATED TO THE PEOPLE OF DARFUR. His writing has appeared in Hunger Mountain, The Sonora Review, Tucson Weekly, The Arizona Daily Sun, The Writer, The Believer, Mutuality and The Hartford Courant. Luke has taught seventh through twelth grade English and is currently embarking, with his wife and son, on the third year of a three-year life-abroad plan. He also nurtures a wonderful blog, which you can visit HERE. We’re so pleased Luke agreed to share his inspirational story with us. Enjoy!
Why Obstacles May Be a Writer’s Best Friends
The plan was simple, sure-fire: my wife, Jennifer, our two-year-old son, Tyler, and I move to England while Jen earns her PhD. I transition from public-school teacher to stay-at-home dad and write in the mornings and at night. We earn enough from my writing to keep us afloat and then move back to the states where my wife gets a job as a Professor, myself as a teacher again. Instead of occurring in this fashion, however, the plan transmogrified into a recipe for apple pie without using apples.
What happened? Hard happened. Though I had experienced some minor successes as a writer—some anthology projects gained publication, essays here and there appeared—nothing big enough to pay the rent had come through. And as each month passed in York, England, I wrote and wrote and then we waited and waited for the Big Break to come.
It never did. Instead of the BB, what we received was an exponential increase in obstacles. Jen would have to take on additional teaching to help pay the rent. I would have to teach night school and apply for a job as a janitor in the early mornings. We would have to budget our groceries down to the pence in order to make sure we could purchase enough milk to last throughout the week for a cereal-crazed family.
Dinners consisted of eggs and beans; pasta with butter or the cheapest sauce which read, in simple fashion, on the white label of the jar: “Tomato Sauce. Value Option.” We picked up jars of the Value Option and in my head, I translated the text as such: For those who can’t afford the thicker, juicier, healthier option alongside this one.
Novelist Kathryn Erskine sent an e-mail my way in the midst of this Plan-Gone-Wrong living, and its contents were simple—perhaps as simple as our original plan had been. However, instead of looking at all these obstacles as walls, Kathy’s e-mail helped me take note of the possibilities of these problems. She wrote, “Two good things: (1) any adversity is a motivator, and (2) sometimes having less time makes the few moments you have to write all the more productive.”
As writers, we are often tempted to conjure up images of writing in a coffee shop, undisturbed by worries of finances, interruptions, problems in our families, and moments where the rejection feels so insurmountable that we long to simply lay ourselves down on the nearest park bench and fall asleep. We’re tempted to the verandas with views, to the plush office, the text that rolls off our fingertips easily and garners a contract just as easily.
But is that what we really long for? In coming to England, did I really hope for a writing life where we’d make enough money to not have to do any other kind of work—not have to budget so carefully, eat so much Value Option tomato sauce?
No. Because then I’d be denying what Khaled Hosseini found to be true. He wrote each morning from five until seven, then worked a full shift as a doctor. During this kind of disciplined, gruelling writing schedule, he forged the words that became The Kite Runner.
I’d also be denying what poet William Butler Yeats wrote almost two centuries ago when he claimed, regarding the recipient of his lines, “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, / And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” The poet knows that that anyone can love for ease—anyone can love because of beauty, grace, desire, or excitement. Anyone can love in times of ease. But when it’s hard, the poet claims that only “one man” can love the pilgrim soul in the other person; only “one man” can love the sorrows of that person’s character arc.
When we write, we seek to get down below the surface of things and craft words that are not only forged in the soul, but that are also deposited in that very same place in our readers. We want to write the stories that have an ability to clearly follow a character’s journey through every kind of obstacle and watch that character learn to love and be loved not in spite of the obstacles, but rather because of them. We want to write the narratives—fictional or true—that explore the “pilgrim soul” of a character, not the simple plan that aims for ease.
Our England journey continues. After 18 months, paying rent still isn’t easy. And the Value Option Tomato Sauce sometimes still mocks us as we place it lovingly into our carriage. But I am learning—as a writer, a husband, and a father—that the obstacles themselves are what forge better fiction. The difficulties that we’re facing here in England are the very doorways that help me to see my own pilgrim soul, and the pilgrim souls that need to people my stories.
Tom Hanks claims, in that remarkable film A League of Their Own, “It’s the hard that makes it great.” Not an easy recognition, to be sure, but a pithy statement that more truthfully captures the essence of the writer’s journey is hard to find. I imagine Khaled Hosseini crafting The Kite Runner at his desk at five in the morning. Before the sun is up. Before even Wolf Blitzer is announcing the latest political plights and probabilities. I imagine him knowing that a full day of intense work still lies ahead, after the work of his words is finished. And yet he sits there for those two hours and writes.
I imagine the National Book Award-winning Kathryn Erskine writing that e-mail, smiling, knowing full well that every obstacle that we encounter as writers isn’t something devised to secure our failure—but instead, a doorway offered to bolster our chances of success.
And so when I sit down at my desk to write in the cracks of time each day affords, I find in myself a strange kind of excitement. Not the excitement of a five-figure publishing contract, to be sure. But something better, perhaps. Something that involves the promise of more obstacles, greater challenges to finding the time to craft the words. Yet knowing full well that within the new obstacles that come are a thousand new doorways that open towards passages of fresh narratives.
New stories await their telling, and the obstacles may be just the friends we all need to find the pilgrim souls of those very stories. And if—as we’re write—our bellies need to be filled with Value Option Tomato Sauces or our mugs with instant coffee, then we know we’re in good company. We know that making lives as writers never was about the plushness of it all, but rather about the love we learn to embody both in our stories and ourselves.