Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Brave Heart of a Writer

Last weekend, I delivered the keynote address at the Anchorage Young Writers Conference. Here, excerpts from my speech:

Before I became a writer, I never thought of myself as brave: I never pulled anyone from a burning building, never jumped into a freezing river to save someone from downing, never faced down a cold-blooded killer. I’d rather curl up in front of a fire and read about those brave deeds in a book.

Now I understand that writing is one of the most courageous things I’ll ever do, and that I have the brave heart of a writer. If you’re a writer, I suspect you’ve got one, too.

You might recall the film Braveheart, released in 1995. It’s the story of William Wallace, a real man who lived in 14th century Scotland. At the time of his birth, a treacherous king had invaded from England. This king kills his father and brother; only William Wallace survives. His uncle helps young William escape to Rome, where he studies in order to improve himself as a man and a warrior.Returning to Scotland, William marries in secret because the king has a policy of taking his liberties with any new bride.

When their marriage is discovered, William’s wife is murdered, but this only makes him stronger. He rallies the Scots against the evil king. Captured, he’s told to beg for mercy; instead he cries “Freedom!” When William is killed, his trusted friend Robert the Bruce surprises the English by leading the Scots to freedom, in a tribute to William Wallace.

The story of William Wallace is a story of courage. It’s also a story of success out of failure, and the truth is that in this business of writing, for each and every one of us, even the most widely read and highly acclaimed, there’s as much failure as success. That’s where your brave heart comes in.

Like William Wallace, as a writer, you’ll feel invaded: your time, your confidence, your pride. Others around you will fail. Determination, persistence—these are what carry you through. In sixteen years, I’ve been fortunate to have twelve published books. But I also have that many manuscripts—maybe more—that have never been published. I have dozens and dozens and dozens of rejections. You must decide that you’ll be a survivor.

Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Or, as the wise author Lemony Snickett once wrote, “At times the world may seem an unfriendly and sinister place, but believe that there is much more good in it than bad. All you have to do is look hard enough, and what might seem to be a series of unfortunate events may in fact be the first steps of a journey.”

Remember when William went to study in Rome? Periods of retreat and study are essential. Learning makes you strong. Read voraciously; read as a writer who studies the art and craft. Read what your favorite writers say about writing, and you’ll find this common thread: the more we write, the more we realize what we still have to learn. Three years ago, I had the good fortune to study with a fine author and an expert teacher, David Vann. Though he now lives in England and New Zealand, David grew up in Ketchikan. When I studied with him, I’d already published several books. But I wanted to do more: to write a novel unlike any I had written before, covering territory I’d not dared before. When David showed me how language itself could be the way into a story, something clicked. The book that had been spinning inside me fell into place. The next day, I began writing it. Next fall, that book, called Cold Spell, will be published.

You’ll recall that when William married, he did so in secret. With your brave hearts, you know the value of a secret: that there are times to withhold your work until it’s ready. You’ll also know the power of a secret within a story.

When things were at their worst, William Wallace gave his all. Despite the odds, your brave heart demands your best, your all. Revise, revise, revise. I revised one of my novels four times, cover to cover.

Like William, you’ll grow strong from defeat. What you do is not for your own glory. The stakes are higher than that: Quality. Art. Your own best self on the page. “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are,” said poet e.e. cummings. That’s what being a writer’s all about. Your moments of weakness, when you’re most vulnerable—those are your chance to show the world what you’re made of. Like most writers, my best work comes from probing those places I’d rather not go: how I was bullied in grade school, how scared I was the first time we moved, how abandoned I felt when my mother wrote me a letter and said I’d never see her again.

Remember how William Wallace was told to ask for mercy and instead he cried “freedom”? Like him, your brave heart will speak truth. What is truth? That’s a big question. So let’s just say here that for the writer, the truth is what author Steve Almond calls “the capacity to expose yourself on the page.”

Finally, like William Wallace, you will dare to have trusted friends. You will help one another against the odds. You’ll be bold enough to cheer each other on. I might not be published at all if it were not for my friend Claire Rudolf Murphy, an author who was also a teacher. In one of my stories, she recognized the potential for a full-length novel. She introduced me to her writers’ group, where I got good feedback on my project. When my book was finished, my friend Claire told me to send it to her editor, well-known in New York publishing. She didn’t worry about whose book, hers or mine, would get more attention or sell more copies. She helped me because we were friends. It’s easy to feel jealous when someone else wins an award or gets published before you do. But your brave heart has no room for competitiveness. When we honor each other, we all win.

Will you be afraid? I hope so. A wise young man one said “Without fear there cannot be courage.” As a child, this young man used to write short stories and poems. He loved the library. He loved to read. When he was fifteen, he wrote the first draft of a novel. The next year he revised it. The following year, with the help of his family, he proofread the manuscript and designed a cover. A well-known author, Carl Hiaasen, read the book and was so impressed that he recommended it to his publisher, as my friend Claire did for me. You probably know this young writer. His name: Christopher Paolini; his book: Eragon, the first in a series that to date has sold over 33 million copies.

Without fear there cannot be courage. Embrace that fear. Learn all you can, and keep learning. Persist. Give it your best. Persist. From defeat, come out stronger. Speak truth. Persist. Persist. Persist. Honor your friends, and compete with no one but yourself.