Women writers will benefit from the inspirational words author/novelist Kathryn Craft has to offer. This post ran in December but is worth running again as we enter 2017.
Kathryn Craft, Author/Novelist
I asked: What was the biggest obstacle you had to face when you decided to become a writer?
Kathryn answers: The local paper needed a dance critic, and I wrote a sample review. The editor read it and said, “Don’t write in the first person because we don’t yet know who you are. Don’t say, ‘It seemed as if’—it weakens your writing. Don’t use more than five sentences per paragraph. Can you start this weekend?”
When you know how to string sentences together and have an area of expertise, that’s just how easy it can be to get paid to write nonfiction.
Fifteen years later I entered the longest labor of my life when my family suffered the kind of tragedy that can make a novelist out of you: my first husband committed suicide after a day-long standoff on our idyllic little farm. In the years to come, wave after wave of pain stymied me as I cast about for meaning. The medium of story felt crucial to finding hope within these darkest trials of our lives. (Her novel, “The Far End of Happy,” recreates the experience.)
I quickly met the first of many fiction-writing obstacles, and each came stamped with the word “humility.” I took a voluntary downgrade from the nominal pay of a dance critic to writing for free for many years. I learned that stringing lovely sentences was no longer enough. An informed opinion was no longer enough. Desire was not enough. This veteran dance critic needed to make a substantial investment of time and money in a storytelling education.
This learning curve proved to be so steep that to this day its summit remains hidden in the clouds. I was lucky, though, in a few regards: “perseverance” had always been my middle name, I have always self-identified as a lifelong learner, and my search for meaning after surviving the suicide had taken on the fervor of a calling.
Choreographer Martha Graham was known for many pithy quotes, but among them, these three kept me going.
- “It takes ten years to make a dancer.” I’ve heard the same thing applied to fiction writers, and indeed, I was offered representation in my 11th year of concerted novel-writing effort.
- In response to a girl who once asked whether she should become a dancer, Graham replied, “If you have to ask, the answer is no.” Dancer or writer, the work is simply too intense, and the chance for monetary reward too minimal, to undertake without the kind of passion that will override common sense. The only writers who will make it for the long haul are those who write because they must.
- “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.” This is why, ultimately, we carry on, despite the obstacle. We believe Graham’s words to the depth of our souls.
JAM: What is the biggest obstacle you face now after having your books published?
KC: The constant head game only ramps up once you’ve been published. The story you’ve so loved is now a product that will be judged by sales numbers, not by its ability to touch the lives of your readers. To that lone voice you’ve battled for so long——the one that said, “This is too hard. Give up and go find happiness”-many other demeaning voices will be added.
If your debut sold like hotcakes, the pressure is on for you to outdo yourself with your sophomore novel, which most publishers will expect within a year—the same conditions responsible for the common career killer known as the sophomore slump. If your debut suffered from lukewarm sales, you’ll be under a whole new kind of pressure to bring it or bag it. Sadly, it seems that publishers would rather bank on a debut author (their sales record is unsullied! They spent years honing this novel!) rather than take another chance on an author with so-so sales.
Add to that the common author gripes of failed proposals, lack of promotional support, bad or few reviews, author envy, and the fact that you are not at your most creative while fighting for the career you thought you’d finally launched, and your inner critic will start to scream, “You are not worthy!”——if you listen, and let’s face it, it’s hard not to listen when a voice is screaming at you.
The only solution is writing. For the same reasons you wanted to in the first place. To explore and discover. To create meaning from life’s obstacles. To dream of delivery even though birth can come to an uncertain end.
The only joy a writer can count on will be found within the labor. That truth redefines creative gestation. Maybe we don’t have to see our labor as marked by pain after all. Maybe labor is about the constant uncertainty of becoming.
If that is so, sign me up. Who’s with me?
Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, “The Art of Falling” and “The Far End of Happy,” and the author of “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters,” a chapter in “Author in Progress,”
a craft guide from Writers Digest Books. Her interview about the way structure supports meaning in her novels is featured in the front of the 2017 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market from Writers Digest Books. Her work as a freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she is an active member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, Pennwriters, and a marketing cooperative of women authors, Tall Poppy Writers. Kathryn leads writing workshops and retreats, and blogs at “Writers in the Storm” and “Writer Unboxed.” Check out www.kathryncraft.com.