Query Letters: Reflections on Bulldozing Writing Walls
Now that my wife, Jennifer, and I have been living in York, England for six months, some of the immediate gratifications of moving abroad have worn off. Instead, the steady monotony of life, raising a toddler, and writing have settled in, and I find Winston Churchill’s slogan during the war, “Keep calm and carry on,” has become a rallying cry of sorts for us here.
As we’ve been going through intense withdrawal from the car, the job, the microwave, money for real-coffee-rather-than-instant, the drying machine, a second pair of pants—all of which we bade farewell in our jump across the pond—Churchill’s slogan compels me to keep moving forward.
When my son, my wife, and I all received the glorious Winter Vomiting Virus (as the National Health Service so articulately and properly named the nasty bug), there were Churchill’s words again, rallying me to continue moving forward.
And when our boiler broke in the middle of the frigid winter, leaving our home heat-less and forcing us to camp out within our walls for a night—buried beneath various clothing articles and watching our breath rise to the ceiling—yup: Churchill, with his pudgy self and wise words, was there again.
Keep calm and carry on.
It strikes me now that this is also excellent advice for a writer. If you love the way words sweep, sleep, or creep together, then chances are you’ve hit your moments of crisis. Perhaps you’ve hit that wall where you sit down at your computer, and all your brain can say to your fingers is, It ain’t happening today, man. No way, no how.
And even though you respond to your brain by saying, Hey, I promised myself I was going to at least get one page a day, no matter how terribly awful and dreadful the writing is, your brain simply lies back and falls asleep, while the little blinking cursor of Microsoft Word still mocks your efforts in perfect rhythm.
Or maybe you’ve written those glorious 200 pages of a middle-grade novel, and you’ve revised it, and you’ve reworked it, and then you’ve revised some more, and you’ve asked a friend who is also a writer to read it, and you’ve incorporated her revisions into further revisions, and then you look at it and you speak to it as if it were a real, live human: You exist! YES! You are here, all 200 pages of you! But then agents and editors aren’t, for some strange reason, as thrilled about your 200 pages as you are.
Or perhaps you’ve crafted two novels—one YA and one MG—and both have been published. Yet you sit down again at the computer, and your brain still won’t release the critical voices that would prefer you sit quietly and do something else with your time. For goodness’ sake, clean out your belly button lint already, will you!?
Whatever form your writing foe takes, keep calm and query on.
No matter how little you feel like it, no matter how futile it sometimes seems, you must keep writing. You must continue to send out queries. You must continue to make contact, believing that the words you write do possess all the possible power and beauty in them to affect one life.
One small life. In one—just one—possibly big way.
Back in the states, when I was in my third year of teaching English at a public school in Connecticut, I gave my 11th-grade students a novella assignment to complete. Over the course of three months, they would be required to write 50 pages of fiction.
They flipped (and rightly so).
Meanwhile, I relished the chance to challenge them with a task they thought they couldn’t possibly complete.
But every one of them rose to the challenge. Week after week, they crafted their pages and brought them into our classroom, and we shared our woes, joys, hopes, and fears about writing. I gave them the challenge because we learn best by doing and because, Lord knows, I needed it myself.
Sometimes the process of writing can seem mystical and surrounded by an aura of secrecy, or placed on the top of some hierarchy, only accessible to the smartest, or the most educated, or the “talented” or the “gifted.”
And all of that is one load of crapola.
I would have to side with Toni Morrison on this front: The Nobel-prize winning author claimed, “If anything I do, in the way of writing novels (or whatever I write) isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything.” Some of the best stuff I have ever read wasn’t produced in the highest echelons of society, or by those who would seek to make a name for themselves for that purpose alone.
Indeed, to this day, the best poem I have ever read was one written by a former seventh-grade student of mine named Mike. He called it “Walking at Night,” and it moved me even more deeply than my other favorite poem, “When You Are Old,” by the great Yeats himself.
All this is to say that to write you only need two things: a heart and a pencil. (Well, maybe a pair of hands and some paper would help. And while we’re at it, throw in the brain, and a desk, maybe a room with a view….)
You do not need a degree. Indeed, one of America’s greatest authors, Gore Vidal, never even graduated from college. You do not need permission. Many of the world’s most powerful works were written by people who had teachers who told them they would never do anything of value. You do not need money. Look at the words of Anne Frank: They burn with the fire of redemption and love, yet her room certainly had no veranda. You do not even need praise (though if you are a writer, you certainly think you do). No matter what anyone says about your writing, there is only one person’s opinion and voice that truly count: your own.
And should you choose to wade through the waters of fear, worry, criticism, and lack of discipline, you may find that the words you craft do, indeed, end up making a difference in one life.
(And that life may be your own.)
So yes: keep calm. When it seems a hopeless endeavor, and you’re onto your fourth novel, and you feel like something isn’t clicking…keep calm! Just keep writing. Keep reading. Let yourself continue to believe that you need to create, and that the words you craft may, indeed, reach the village one day.
And yes: query on. When it seems that most of what you write never enters the world, remind yourself that this is the case for all writers—even the truly remarkable ones. They craft pages and pages and pages that will never see the outside of a desk drawer or a hard drive.
Keep writing, and keep sending your work out into the world, whether to magazines, publishers, agents, or even the trees and the birds (more than a handful of poets have honed their own lines by reading them aloud to the birds and the bees). Query on!
You never know when one word may meet another and start a relationship that just won’t quit, and hey, don’t you want to be around to watch what happens from there?