Category Archives: Writers and Writing

Books, writing, and the writers’ life and trials

Dear Darcy, It Is Finished

This past week, I finished my most ambitious novel. I call it For America, because it is meant as a gift I hope will delight people who sense the need for a different ruling class (which in a democracy means the voters, no?), and help some others recognize that need.

I have worked on this story whenever inspiration struck since my big girl Darcy, who is now a school administrator, was tiny.  

One day when little Darcy noticed me staggering around the house with my head in the clouds  she said, “Oh no. Crazy ol’ Daddy’s working on The Grass Crisis again.”

She got most of that right, the crazy part and what I was working on. Only the title back then was The Gas Crisis.  Not The Grass Crisis.

The Puzzle

One: In a Christian Bookstore

A couple years after I became known as a mystery writer, when my novel The Angel Gang came out, Alan Russell and I set off on a book signing tour. Somewhere in Central California, when we happened upon a Family Christian Bookstore, I said to Alan, “Hey, this place ought to carry The Angel Gang. I mean it’s got a heroine who’s a Christian and hangs out with angels.”

Alan said, “Not a chance. Do you know what drek these Christian bookstores carry?”

“Nope,” I said.

Not only was I a newcomer to this mystery business, I had only recently become a churchgoer and was as yet nowhere near as acquainted with either mysteries or contemporary Christian books as I hoped to become.

So I suggested we check out the store.

In non-fiction, I found a few worthy authors: C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, Dallas Willard, but mostly self-help on topics such as lose weight with a Godly diet or save your marriage with these six scriptures, and a few biographies of Church founders and missionaries.

Alan gave a told-you-so nod and we moved along to the fiction section.

To my horror, I saw no Dostoyevski, or Flannery O’Connor, or Graham Greene, all of whom had guided me toward conversion. Wondering if they were excluded because two were Catholic and the other Eastern Orthodox or because they were not particularly easy reading, I browsed long enough to realize the majority of books were Christian romance. And hardly of the Jane Eyre sort, I suspected, since these were the kind with Fabio clones on the cover only different than the secular kind since he wore a shirt.

While I walked out of there grumbling, I noticed a decal on the door that clued me the store was a member of the Christian Bookseller’s Association.

“Who are those guys?” I asked Alan.

Two: Who Are Those Guys?

The Christian Bookseller’s Association was organized in 1950, and inspired by the concern of primarily fundamentalist and evangelical churches who believed their flock needed help and guidance if they were to find the kind of reading most instructive and/or least offensive to people of the Christian faith.

So CBA established guidelines for books sold by its member stores to prohibit offensive content including profanity, alcohol consumption, and references to luck. At least according to Wikipedia, when a significant minority of customers at CBA’s member stores take offense to a book, CBA pressures all member stores to stop selling books by that book’s publisher.

Much like the auto industry can be convinced to make cars in accord with California emissions standards because so many of us Californians drive, publishers who want to sell to CBA bookstores make books that meet the CBA’s standards.

For those who find a typical evangelical statement of faith informative, I’ll give the CBA’s, for brevity leaving out the scripture citations:

We believe that there is one God, eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each of Whom is fully and equally God

We believe the Bible to be the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.

We believe in the Deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious death and atonement through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His future, personal and visible return in power and glory

We believe that man was created in the image of God, that he was tempted by Satan and fell and, because of the exceeding sinfulness of human nature, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is necessary for salvation which is provided by God’s grace and appropriated through the believer’s faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross .

We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by Whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life, and by Whom the Church is empowered to carry out Christ’s great commission

We believe that as a witness to the world, and in obedience to God, the Christian believer is called to conform to the values and principles set forth in the Bible.

We believe that the Christian’s life should adhere to God’s revealed design for sexuality, for one‐man‐one‐woman marriage, and for family life, and, as God is the author of life, to His authority over gender .

We believe in the bodily resurrection of both the saved and the lost, those who are saved to the resurrection of life and those who are lost to a second death through an eternal separation from God

So, I wonder, does that mean that in addition to the absence of alcohol, profanity and luck, authors who hope to find a CBA affiliated publisher would be wise to keep their characters and themes within the bounds of the CBA prescribed faith.

Maybe. or maybe not. I will opine about that in Part 3.

Three: What to Do?

As a young writer, I didn’t consider writing for the Christian market, even after my first published novel was all about Christian people and themes, because I wanted everybody to read my books. Especially, I wanted people who supposed all who believe in Christ are nitwits to wise up.

But over the years, I slowly began to wise myself up, and to accept that the world is the way it is whether I like it or not, and that publishers, to sell a book, need to find a target audience.

Still, I was at a loss about whom to target.

Meanwhile, the agent who represented me bought another agency, got doubly busy, and passed me along to an associate who subsequently bungled what might’ve been a game changing sale. When, at church, I told a couple of smart writer friends about this mishap, they suggested I send something to a fellow they considered tops in the Christian agent business.

I did so.

He replied, “I surely like the book, but I don’t think I can sell it.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Well, it’s got too much Christian content for the secular market and too much sex for the Christian market.”

I said. “Well, it’s not preachy but I can see why secular publishers might shy away. But too much sex? How can that be? There’s not any sex in it.”

“Right,” he said, “But Clifford thinks about sex.”

“Who doesn’t?” I asked.

“Pretty much nobody,” he said.

Now, I hadn’t written graphic sex, nor did I plumb Clifford’s mind specifically when he admired a woman or two. Maybe the part about him coming home from surfing and finding a pastor running out of his house pulling up his jeans would offend CBA readers. But as the last two churches I had attended suffered from such pastoral indiscretions, I felt the scene fairly not only realistic but one many churchgoers would find familiar.

A while thereafter, someone invited me to teach at a Christian writers’ conference and for several years, I taught at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference and the Florida Christian Writers conference. Those times were always enjoyable and rewarding, especially being in the company of kindred spirits, or at least people with whom I shared beliefs, passions, and ambitions.

But some of what I learned dispirited me.

An editor from Harvest House told a gathering of faculty that recently a bookstore had passed along a customer complaint about a Harvest House novel including somebody who drank wine. Regrettably, the editors decided henceforth not to allow such depravity.

In a class I attended, the editor/teacher asked our favorite Christian Writers. When I mentioned Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor, he responded with a scowl. Anyone who hasn’t yet read The Power and the Glory or “Revelation”, please do.

Mount Hermon offered what they called a Master Class, attendance limited to students who had published at least one book and to faculty. What I found was terrifying to a rather shy man. Not only was I the only male in the gathering of twenty-some writers, I was also the only one whose specialty wasn‘t romance novels.

Now, I have no particular prejudice against romance novels except rumor holds they require adherence to a mighty strict plot formula. For followers of Christ drawn to write romance, I suspect the CBA and secular romance formulas aren’t far apart. Which may explain why I found myself in such an extreme minority.

Anyway, I decided neither the CBA nor the romance genre were the best fit for a fellow who probably couldn’t follow a strict formula if he wanted to. And I also had reason to fear that neither was the “mainstream” of commercial publishing the right place for a guy who seems incapable of disregarding his faith while pursuing his craft.

Then where, I wondered, is my place. Some of you may likewise wonder.

Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey offers examples of believers in Christ who have forged successful writing careers while exposing their honest faith.

In Part 4, I’ll address how they managed to overcome.

Four: A Few Survivors

In Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey credits a dozen people as the foremost influences that allowed his survival as a Christian after a childhood witnessing the bigotry of his “Christian” family and church. Among these influences are several contemporary writers from whom we might gain some insight into overcoming the obstacles of cynical mainstream and narrowly focused Christian publishers.

Frederick Buechner was an accomplished and moderately successful writer before he turned serious about te Christian faith. Once he made the commitment he returned to college to study theology, and subsequently became both the creator of a Christian studies program at Phillips Exeter Academy and a preacher, and during a sabbatical created The Final Beast, in which he combined his dual callings as a minister and a novelist.

Biographer Marjorie McCoy wrote: “Buechner in his sermons had been attempting to reach out to the “cultured despisers of religion.” In his novels, he has attempted the same. Would that more of us could succeed in such an attempt.

Annie Dillard is most worthy of our study not only for the extraordinary precision and beauty of her prose but also for her brilliance of insight. Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a nonfiction narrative about the natural world near her home, led a critic to call her “one of the foremost horror writers of the 20th Century.” Acclaimed author Eudora Welty commented: “admirable writing” that reveals “a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled… [an] intensity of experience that she seems to live in order to declare.”

Lessons we all can learn from Annie Dillard are to take our every word seriously, to follow our original light, and to believe that if we become good enough at our craft, people including publishers are apt to take notice.

Shusaku Endo used his own experience to inform his historical novel Silence, which has been called one of the 20th century’s finest novels. The story tells of a Jesuit missionary sent to 17th century Japan where he endures persecution in the time of  “Hidden Christians”. Its theme of a silent God who accompanies a believer in adversity was greatly influenced by the author’s experience of religious discrimination in Japan, racism in France, and a debilitating bout with tuberculosis.

Those of us looking for a way to tell our story and find a vehicle for our theme might consider, as Endo did, finding a popular context or genre, such as historical fiction, in which to place it.

In Part Five, I’ll note some other inspiring successes from whom we can learn, and through learning, possibly become valuable to a whole mob of readers.

 Five: Success

To study how other writers have succeeded in finding their audience is of course not only valuable to Christian writers, but it may be more critical and perhaps harder for us on account of current prevalent attitudes toward Christian thought and stories.

Graham Greene, especially in The Power and the Glory and The End of the Affair, wrote about problematic people: a humble yet deeply flawed priest, and a woman trying to live out her faith during times of tragedy of both worldwide and personal tragedy. But he also wrote spy stories he considered entertainments as opposed to the novels he approached with profound care and gravity. The entertainments were meant to support him and build his readership. The novels, which ask to put aside simple answers, are serious literature.

Ron Hansen is a dedicated Catholic who has written fine novels in which Christian themes or characters don’t figure. But his Mariette In Ecstasy is decidedly Christian though it avoids being cast aside by secular readers by showing the story, an account of a young nun enduring a stigmata experience, in what appears to be objective detail. For those unacquainted with the term, stigmata is the mysterious manifestation of wounds on a person’s body that correspond with the crucifixion wounds suffered by Jesus. The experience may be viewed as form of hysteria or a  miracle, and Ron Hansen leaves the answer to the reader.

Flannery O’Connor, an earnest Christian, was a boldly critical observer of Christian life and culture, often exposing the hypocrisy of churchgoers. Also, the characters she created are often larger than life, exaggerated almost to cartoonish proportions.

Anne Lamott, like Flannery O’Connor, is refreshingly original. Her brash, commonly profane, and self-revealing style and humor are probably what have made her work succeed remarkably with mainstream readers. Humor can win over most anybody.

John Irving is also a master humorist, and though he doesn’t profess to be a Christian, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a novel that takes Christian beliefs including the miraculous and prophetic quite seriously, and the book became and remains extraordinarily popular, perhaps because Irving has the gift of making the wild and outrageous stuff believable. I studied with him in Iowa and learned that he learned much about style and storytelling attitude from Charles Dickens

Six: Brand Yourself

I trust you will pardon a digression on account of something I read this week in Philip Yancey’s Christians and Politics: Uneasy Partners:  “A few decades ago an overwhelming majority of respondents with no faith commitment still viewed Christians favorably. According to George Barna researchers only 16 percent of young “outsiders” now have a favorable impression of Christianity and only 3 percent have a good impression of evangelicals.

As a writer lacking a retirement income that alone would allow me to subsidize Zoe’s college or travel much farther than say, Yuma, Arizona, I think about my writing income when considering what Mr. Yancey points out. Because the less favorable impression “outsiders” have, the less likely they are to buy my books. And since I don’t write primarily for the “insiders” who are more likely to read CBA books, which mine aren’t, I’m in somewhat of a fix.

The church I favor grew out of Calvary Chapel and is classed evangelical. So according to Mr. Yancey, most readers consider me homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, illogical, and convinced that whoever doesn’t agree with me will go to hell. Now why would anyone want to read an author about whom they think all that?

More to the point, how can I persuade them that’s not me.

Branding, that’s how. What I, and perhaps you, need is a brand that not only identifies me to readers as a Christian who is no more homophobic, judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, or illogical than they are.

Here’s a fairly comprehensive look at what makes an author brand, which you ought to read when time allows. Meanwhile, though, so as not to lure you away from my compelling thoughts, here is an outline.

To Establish Your Brand:

First, identify your reader.
Then, develop your brand voice.
Also, figure out your unique selling point.
And set some expectations. Tell readers what they can expect from you.
And know what you’re branding. You are branding you, not your book
Be sure to choose a look, a color palette, maybe a smile, a sneer, a style of headgear, or a logo.
And once you’ve got the brand, apply it everywhere.

Now, you had best start branding. And if any insights about branding yourself, branding me, or about anything worthy of contemplation come to mind, drop me a note at ken@kenkuhlken.net

Seven: An 
Original Makes a Small Fortune

Apologies for the long delay. As usual, I got little done over Christmastime. Then, beginning with the new year,  almost everything I own broke, meaning I apparently own too much stuff.

Amidst my stuff, I discovered the novelist Joseph Girzone.

Mister Girzone’s books — so far I have read Shepherdand Joshua and the Children  — are quite unique, not only extremely Christian but also harshly critical of both contemporary churches and the history of the Christian church. To him, the whole Christian business, plagued by attitudes of exclusion and rivalry, is essentially a latter-day gang of scribes and Pharisees.

His basic story, repeated in one Joshua book after another, features Christ returning to earth in the attempt to show how his message of love and forgiveness is supposed to work. Mister Girzone spells the message out in dialogue, monologue, and narrative written at a level accessible to even young readers.

Though he is no poet or master stylist, I find him refreshing and will continue to read his books. In fact, today I ordered Joshua in the Holy Land. 

The story of his life as a writer I find compelling and worthy of study. A Catholic priest until health issues required that he retire from active ministry, he then turned to full time writing and speaking. After failing to find a publisher for his first novels, he published them on his own and began selling them at speaking engagements. Once his books gained a following, a Catholic imprint of Doubleday took them on. With national marketing, his Joshua novels sold in the millions, enabling him to provide for people in need much like his character Joshua does.  However, (from Wikipedia) “After that long period of success, (in 2007) due to changes in the publishing industry” Doubleday dropped him.

Early in this century, the publishing industry changed radically because of buyouts of midsized publishers by the multinational corporations, now known as the big five. Along with that change came a major attitudinal shift. No longer could an editor acquire and publish a book simply because he or she loved it. Instead, marketing and sales departments became the de-facto acquisition editors.

Eventually, the takeover of publishing by the multinationals may result in a wealth of new, smaller but vital publishers. Some of that has already happened.

Keep an eye out. Any you find or already know about, please let me know. I can help pass the word.

I’m and artist and so are you

An Artist?

“We are God’s art, created in Christ Jesus to do works of beauty, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

“So God created mankind in his own image… male and female…” Genesis 1:27.

We are made in the image of the master artist, the creator of all creation, to create works of beauty.

Though we may not be called to quit our day jobs, run off to Tahiti and paint our impressions of the islanders, we are meant to view our work and our lives from an artist’s perspective.

Whether our goal is to provide announcements for a church newsletter, to make of our home a refuge from the storm outside, to save stories and lessons from our lives, to create happiness by loving well, or to compose a novel or film masterpiece, we are called to approach those projects with attitudes guided by the motive of creating works of beauty.

John Keats, in “Ode On a Grecian Urn”, wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”

Real beauty, whether in the eye of the creator or the beholder, is an expression of love.

Christ insists, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works [works of beauty] and glorify your father who is in heaven.”

We are created in the image of God so that we can make art of and through our lives so that our art can draw people to God. And because God is love, we can draw people to God by helping them love better, which is best accomplished by loving them better.

In my novel The Good Know Nothing detective Tom Hickey and his sister Florence, who works for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, are on a road trip when she asks:

“Tommy, do you want to know why I fell for God?”

“Sure.”

“It’s all your fault,” she said.

“How so?”

“See, when you really know love, when you find yourself being truly loved, you can’t help thanking God.”

A tiny sob issued out of her. Then she scooted closer and kissed her brother’s cheek. Tom sat speechless, wondering if his heart might explode.

Florence rode with her head on her brother’s shoulder. As distant headlights approached, she said, “The thing is, when you truly thank God, you sort of feel him smile. Then you fall for him. That’s all.”

 

Living As A Writer–What I Don’t Wish

I read quite a lot, mostly novels, which is what I most love to write. So when the thought came that of all the books I’ve read, even masterpieces and others that exhibit wit, style, plotting, wisdom or whatever I admire and may consider beyond my ability, I have never thought anything like: I wish I had written that novel.

Not that I’m immune to envy. Not hardly. The reason I don’t wish I had written those books is that they are not my stories. This may be nothing profound, only a psychological quirk, a symptom of narcissism or whatever mental illness I have, but it feels as if certain stories are mine and others simply aren’t.

Other creations, such as songs, inventions, even phrases, I often wish for one reason or another were mine. Stories, nope.

No doubt all of us who admit to being writers have been told countless times something like, “Boy, do I have a story for you.” I wonder how many of those offers have ever been acted upon.

A common response to the question “Where do you get your stories?” is: out of the newspaper. So apparently this feeling of mine isn’t universal.

Since I get older almost every day, and sometimes life wearies me, and I wonder if I’ll ever truly retire from this vocation, which at times feels hard and draining; whenever the question arises if I might survive long enough to retire, I conclude, sure, I can retire after I finish the stories currently residing at one depth or another in my mind. Right now, the count of novel length stories is eight.

Back to work.

 

Stories I Don’t Wish I Wrote

I read quite a lot, mostly novels, which is what I most love to write. So when the thought came that of all the books I’ve read, even masterpieces and others that exhibit wit, style, plotting, wisdom or whatever I admire and may consider beyond my ability, I have never thought anything like: I wish I had written that novel.

Not that I’m immune to envy. Not hardly. The reason I don’t wish I had written those books is that they are not my stories. This may be nothing profound, only a psychological quirk, a symptom of narcissism or whatever mental illness I have, but it feels as if certain stories are mine and others simply aren’t.

Other creations, such as songs, inventions, even phrases, I often wish for one reason or another were mine. Stories, nope.

No doubt all of us who admit to being writers have been told countless times something like, “Boy, do I have a story for you.” I wonder how many of those offers have ever been acted upon.

A common response to the question “Where do you get your stories?” is: out of the newspaper. So apparently this feeling of mine isn’t universal.

Since I get older almost every day, and sometimes life wearies me, and I wonder if I’ll ever truly retire from this vocation, which at times feels hard and draining; whenever the question arises if I might survive long enough to retire, I conclude, sure, I can retire after I finish the stories currently residing at one depth or another in my mind. Right now, the count of novel length stories is eight.

Back to work.

 

A Trip to Midheaven, Free

I was studying in the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop when an editor from Viking Press came to visit. We got to talking, and she took my novel Midheaven in manuscript back to New York with her.

Months passed. More months passed. I wrote her. I wrote her again. More months passed. I drove to New York from San Diego and went to her office. She was in a meeting. I returned the next day. She was in a meeting. I met with an editor at Knopf about another project, and had lunch with my agent (who had opted not to submit Midheaven to publishers) I returned once again. She was in a meeting. I drove back to San Diego.

I was working as a welfare eligibility worker when Maureen, a Viking editor, called. She told me the original editor had quit and gone to grow citrus in Florida and left a stack of manuscripts on her desk.  Midheaven was one, and she wanted to buy it. But first, she needed to pitch it to a committee. She did. Viking offered to buy it, for a small advance. Then my agent (the same who had chosen not to submit) called and wanted in on the contract, for his 10%, though I hadn’t told him about the offer. Word gets around New York, I guess.

A couple months before the book came out, Maureen resigned from her job at Viking. Some years later, when I met her at a book signing in Berkeley, I learned that she quit because Viking had declined to put any effort whatsoever into publicizing two books she edited, one of them being Midheaven.

But when the book came out, I knew none of that. I was simply elated that I had a book, with my photo on the cover, and reviewers praised it, and none of them panned me for writing from a young woman’s point of view. And imagine my delight when Midnheaven was chosen as a finalist for an award for best American first fiction book of the year. Now, I thought, Viking would publicize.

They didn’t. And I moved on. And now, Midheaven is an ebook, and it’s free this week, through 6-20-14, at Story Cartel. You can’t beat that deal. Nor will you be disappointed. It’s a mighty fine story.

Here’s the jist of it.

In the early 1970′s, high school senior Jodi McGee turns from drugs and boys to Christ, but soon thereafter falls for her English teacher. As a result, tragedies test her will, her faith, and her sanity.

Some clips from reviews “… a pleasure to read.” “… gritty and honest.” “One of those rare gems of a novel that sneaks up on you and nestles in your soul.”

Remember to get your copy at www.storycartel.com/books/midheaven before the deal ends on Friday.

Living as a Writer — a free trip to Midheaven

I was studying in the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop when an editor from Viking Press came to visit. We got to talking, and she took my novel Midheaven in manuscript back to New York with her.

Months passed. More months passed. I wrote her. I wrote her again. More months passed. I drove to New York from San Diego and went to her office. She was in a meeting. I returned the next day. She was in a meeting. I met with an editor at Knopf about another project, and had lunch with my agent (who had opted not to submit Midheaven to publishers) I returned once again. She was in a meeting. I drove back to San Diego.

I was working as a welfare eligibility worker when Maureen, a Viking editor, called. She told me the original editor had quit and gone to grow citrus in Florida and left a stack of manuscripts on her desk.  Midheaven was one, and she wanted to buy it. But first, she needed to pitch it to a committee. She did. Viking offered to buy it, for a small advance. Then my agent (the same who had chosen not to submit) called and wanted in on the contract, for his 10%, though I hadn’t told him about the offer. Word gets around New York, I guess.

A couple months before the book came out, Maureen resigned from her job at Viking. Some years later, when I met her at a book signing in Berkeley, I learned that she quit because Viking had declined to put any effort whatsoever into publicizing two books she edited, one of them being Midheaven.

But when the book came out, I knew none of that. I was simply elated that I had a book, with my photo on the cover, and reviewers praised it, and none of them panned me for writing from a young woman’s point of view. And imagine my delight when Midnheaven was chosen as a finalist for an award for best American first fiction book of the year. Now, I thought, Viking would publicize.

They didn’t. And I moved on. And now, Midheaven is an ebook, and it’s free this week, through 6-20-14, at Story Cartel. You can’t beat that deal. Nor will you be disappointed. It’s a mighty fine story.

Here’s the jist of it.

In the early 1970′s, high school senior Jodi McGee turns from drugs and boys to Christ, but soon thereafter falls for her English teacher. As a result, tragedies test her will, her faith, and her sanity.

Some clips from reviews “… a pleasure to read.” “… gritty and honest.” “One of those rare gems of a novel that sneaks up on you and nestles in your soul.”

Remember to get your copy at www.storycartel.com/books/midheaven before the deal ends on Friday.

Why Write?

A prologue: Though I have plenty (probably too much) to say about many subjects, I need to limit my blogging or else give up other pursuits, such as writing novels or helping with my Zoe’s softball. I’d rather limit. A blog post once a week seems to fit my inclinations and circumstances.

The first week of each month goes to a blog for my mystery publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. I try to post something that might be of interest to mystery writers and readers. My day is the 8th.

And as I’m the guy in charge of communications from Perelandra College, I attempt to post on the college blog insights primarily relevant to writers who are Christians, which lots of our students are, though I hope those posts might also resonate with other writers.

The last week of each month I devote lots of time to The Scoop, a newsletter mostly about happenings within the Perelandra College community (you could subscribe through the link on the college website home page).

Which leaves me about a week a month to pursue thoughts about a subject dear to my heart, which is living as a writer, how to do so with the minimum of tragic or debilitating consequences and instead with the maximum of inspiration and joy. So, I’ll try to offer some words on this gnarly topic each month. Please note the word “try”.

Today I’ll tackle a question at the heart of the matter: why do we choose to write, anyway? Because, if we can’t answer that one, how can we begin to make sense of our lives?

I’ve attended dozens of writing conferences. Almost always, the keynote speaker tells the story: How I Got Rich and Famous. I find that story offensive, because in the context it implies that the reason we write is to get rich and famous.

In the film Citizen Kane, the tycoon’s old and wise advisor tells a reporter, “Well, it’s no trick to make a lot of money … if all you want is to make a lot of money.”

If I chose my career for the sake of making money, I would turn to buying, selling and developing real estate, and thereby boost a thousandfold the odds of my getting rich, if not famous.

So if not to get rich and famous, why should anyone choose to be a writer?

Some of us may be cursed by a need for closure. A story idea comes to mind, perhaps as a character or an image, and we get obsessed by a craving to follow it and see where the story goes.

Once I went to a party in a cabin on the shore of Lake Tahoe. In the living room were two distinct groups. One group was reading and discussing the Bible. The other group was passing a joint and laughing about something (probably about the Bible fans). A pretty girl stood between the groups, staring back and forth, appearing bewildered by the decision to join one group or the other. At last, she turned and rushed outside, ran straight to the lake and plunged in. I watched until she came out and trudged in her sopping boots, jeans and t-shirt, away down the beach.

I should’ve run after her and tried to make friends, but I’m shy. So instead I made her into a girl named Jodi, got inside her head and wrote Midheaven.

Even now, some decades later, I love that girl.

I miss her and wonder what became of her after I wrote The End, which I intend to find out in a year or two when she meets Clifford Hickey, another of my favorite people.

By the way, Writing and the Spirit, my book of reflections about inspiration and how to find it, was released not long ago by OakTara Press. Every writer and other kind of artist ought to read it. No kidding.

Immortality or Promotion

Over the past couple years I have collected what would probably be a ream or so, were the collection on paper, of advice about business promotion in general and book promotion in particular. Since I’m an avid collector but not such an avid reader of how-to stuff, I have yet to read most of my collection. But now and then, usually with a sigh or grimace, I plunge into business mode.

During one of those plunges, a piece of advice struck me as real wisdom. Which may only mean I found it easy to swallow, like health advice that praises dark chocolate, red wine, and coffee. Either way, what I appreciated was a reminder that we can’t do it all and the assurance our best course was to concentrate on the kind of promotion we either enjoy or at least find somewhat palatable.

With that wisdom in the back of my mind, I later came upon this gem: rather than attempt to promote our books, we should work on building our legacy.

One reason I find this notion appealing is, before we can build our legacy, we need to decide what we want it to be. The notion has led me to some parenting insights and a change or two in behavior. And it has sent me on a quest to define what exactly makes me unique as a writer. And clarifying who or what I am, say the promo gurus, is essential to the success of my book promotion.

My legacy should be something that promotes what I love. Aside from sports, romance, and family, the great passions of my life have been reading, writing, learning, thinking, and teaching. For my legacy to promote the love of reading, learning, and thinking, I can attempt to write books at once fascinating and thoughtful that also contain stuff worth learning about, such as history. And, rather than be egocentric and miserly, I can offer a resource to help people discover other fascinating, thoughtful books they can learn from.

I’ll sign off here and get to work recommending. I have done quite a lot of reviews for magazines and newspapers. But I’ll turn to recommending rather than reviewing. Since a recommendation is akin to a guarantee, should you read one of my recommendations and disagree with my assessment, feel free to send me a bill for what the book cost you. I’m not likely to pay up, but you never know.

I’m at: kenkuhlken.net

Clerks and Errand Boys

The other day I read about a writer for Guns and Ammo magazine who was abruptly fired after an article of his questioned the notion that any regulation of guns was unconstitutional. Apparently advertisers suggested that if the writer stayed, they wouldn’t.

One Friday evening I attended church and heard the pastor utter a phrase that astonished me, given his evangelical audience. He said, “Look, if you think ‘My country is always right and the enemy’s always wrong,’ you’re not getting that from the Bible.”

On Sunday, I returned to see if he repeated the phrase to the much larger and generally more traditional audience. He didn’t. For a couple weeks I was furious, until I began to look at the log in my own eye and realize that I, like everyone who speaks or writes for a living, to one degree or another plays to his or her audience.

As do we all, whether our audience be a public, a boss, or an institution.

Still, whenever I’m reminded of how much our careers depend upon not only upon what we do or say but also upon what we don’t do or say, I recall the Marlon Brando character Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now.

A soldier named Willard has been sent into the jungle to terminate Kurtz, a renegade American army captain who appears to have gone mad and resorted to the most savage tactics.

Here’s the scene:

Kurtz: You are an assassin?

Willard: A soldier.

Kurtz: You are neither. You are an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.

I had the privilege of meeting the author Kurt Vonnegut when I was studying at the University of Iowa and he came for a visit. At a party, a few of us were in the kitchen when Mr. Vonnegut offered some theories about how the world works. A big issue at the time was the price of gasoline. He said, “Suppose you work at a gas station and I come to buy gas and you charge me a dollar a gallon, and I argue that you’re out of line charging so much, and you say ‘I have to charge you that much, because that’s the price my boss set.’ You see, that’s a lie. You don’t have to charge that much. You don’t have to keep that job.”

Certainly there are rebuttals to his argument, but they all are pragmatic, and they lead me to think about another fine author, B. Traven (who, by the way, appears in my upcoming Tom Hickey novel The Good Know Nothing). Traven argued that we always have a choice. If, with a gun barrel pressed to our temples, we are commanded to do something, we can refuse, and die.

Which makes me think of our challenge as writers, or students, or employees of any sort. Because the degree to which we cater to our audience, even though the effort may oppose our own aesthetics or values, may well determine our material success or failure.

I’m not advocating that we should approach our work idealistically, pragmatically, or with a moderate dose of each attitude. That has to be a personal decision.

But I am suggesting that we would do well to recognize our freedom and now and then stop to ask “Am I an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill?”

Or what?