Be willing to face rejection. It comes with the territory. Even famous authors who have been on the New York Times bestseller list face rejection now and then. My caregiving through cancer book was rejected by 128 (I counted) agents and editors. If I’d given up, it would still be sitting in file cabinet. Which leads me to my next piece of wisdom.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Potter Kenyon.
Mary Potter Kenyon graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a B.A. in Psychology and was certified as a grief counselor in 2017. Mary works as Program Coordinator for Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa, where she lives with the youngest of her eight children. Mary is widely published in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, and the author of seven books, including the August 2020 released “Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity.” Learn more about Mary at www.marypotterkenyon.com
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
I was an avid reader from the age of five, the child who lived inside her own head, making up stories on my way to and from school, transcribing bad poetry and short stories into a Big Chief tablet my mother snuck into my sock drawer. I became the teen who loved essay tests and wrote for the high school newspaper. It wasn’t altogether out of character then when I abandoned the pursuit of a Masters in Family Services in 1988 to care for my own growing family, decided I would be a freelance writer. It seemed the most fitting way to pursue my own creativity as I raised children.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
When I signed my first book contract in 1994 the publisher required the final manuscript be submitted on a computer disk. We’re talking floppy disk era, when computers were quite expensive. He may as well have asked me to submit via a flying saucer. As parents of five children living off one income and what little I brought in working freelance, our budget was tight. There was no money for the purchase of a computer. I had no idea how I’d make it happen, but I trusted God to provide. You see, faith and art had been intrinsically linked in my upbringing, as my own mother had somehow managed to create a home business selling her paintings and wood carvings even as she raised ten children in poverty. I believed if I was meant to write the book, the path would be opened to me. Sure enough, the next time I saw my older brother Lyle, who had no idea of my desperate need, he offered me his second-hand computer, which required a minor repair. By then I’d received my small advance check, which covered the repairs. That first computer lasted several years and came just in time. It seemed many magazine editors and publishers were beginning to switch from snail mail submissions to requesting e-mailed ones.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Facing rejection is painful for anyone, but I would hazard a guess it is especially difficult for those of us who were bullied as children. Due to some particularly vicious bullying during my years in a parochial elementary school, I had zero self-esteem when I transferred to a public school in seventh grade. Thanks to some intuitive teachers, a few fledgling friendships, and my participation in newspaper, drama, and speech activities, I managed to develop at least a semblance of self-esteem before college, where I met my husband. Isolated at home with several children years later, my self-confidence deteriorated with each rejection, and I’d revert right back to that sixth grader who navigated school hallways with her head down, shoulders hunched, books clutched tightly to her chest, not daring to meet the eyes of those who taunted her, calling her names and shoving her against the wall.
A lack of self confidence does not serve us well as writers, when we face repeated rejection. As I learned more about the publishing industry, however, I realized I could not take rejection personally; that it may have been as simple as bad timing for my submission, or the wrong market. It helped that I was stubborn. When a submission came back, I’d take another look at it, edit or revise if needed, and immediately send it elsewhere. It also helped that I had at least some nominal success in getting things published. I believe now that because of my childhood experiences I was actually driven by the determination to prove my voice and my words had value.
At some point in my career, I realized I could utilize my greatest weakness, that lack of self-esteem, as a strength. I bring an authenticity and transparency to my writing and public speaking because of my experiences, not in spite of them. It is the greatest compliment I can receive to hear that I am “so real” as a speaker or writer.
One of my passions is to help others discover their own talents and encourage them through the workshops and classes I teach at community colleges and writer’s conferences. When I teach Beginning Writing, I remind the students that the only way they can avoid rejection is to never send anything out.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I teach classes so that no one has to make the same mistakes I made as a new writer. When I was trying to sell a book in 2007 on caregiving through cancer, I stubbornly refused to take no for an answer. Instead of targeting for the market though, I went down a list of agents in alphabetical order. 128 agents later (I kept the handwritten list for posterity, and even show it in a power point sometimes, to demonstrate what NOT to do), I realized my folly. It was like throwing arrows at deer, hoping I’d hit one. That book manuscript sat in a file cabinet for another five years before I submitted to the right publisher and it was published. It’s all about finding the right fit for your work, and that means targeting the correct markets in the first place.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
It’s been an interesting experience to have a book released during the pandemic. I’ve had to be creative about promoting a creativity book. In-person appearances either pivoted online, were postponed, or cancelled altogether. Plans to travel for promotion were also cancelled. At the beginning of the year, I’d made plans to travel to California, where my daughter lives, and Florida, where my sister lives, and appear at bookstores and libraries in their areas. Many bookstores and libraries were still closed in August when my book was released. It does mean more radio shows, podcasts, and online events than I’ve ever done with previous books. In fact, I’d never appeared in a virtual program until April 2020, when I had to learn Zoom for my workplace events.
While typically I’d be working on my next writing project by the time a book is released, I’ve been working on programs to inspire and encourage others to discover their own passion and purpose instead. I do a program called “The Legacy of the Magic Pencil” and have been speaking for online conferences and doing virtual events related to the topic of my book.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
My mother, Irma Potter, was an extremely creative woman, incorporating creativity into everything she did. A self-taught artist, she’d beautified our simple home with hand-crafted wall hangings made from burlap sacks, buttons, and hand-embroidery, teddy bears created from cast-off woolen coats, and the home business selling woodcarvings and paintings. She managed to feed ten children through her canning of Dad’s garden produce and the butchered chickens he raised. She upcycled and recycled long before it was the hip thing to do. Mom died on my birthday in November 2010, and as one of the executors of her estate, I took the liberty of using her empty house as a private writing retreat for several months that winter, until it was listed for sale.
After the last of her things were removed, I walked slowly through the house, checking for missed items and dusting every bare surface. My three youngest daughters trailed behind me. The house had become a refuge for me in the previous months. It was hard to let it go. It was the final day before we’d close the house for good and turn the keys over to a realtor.
Running my dust cloth along the windowpanes of the front porch that had served as Mom’s workroom, I contemplated all the hours she’d spent creating in there. My fingertips hit an object that gave a little, sliding across the sill of one window. It was a thin pencil emblazoned with advertising. I held it aloft for my daughters to see.
“Look. One of Grandma’s magic pencils,” I teased. “Just think. This is a pencil she probably used to draw rough sketches for what would later become a painting.”
The girls were well aware of Grandma’s talent, impressed by her wood carvings and the barn board and canvas paintings she’d done. They considered her a bona fide artist. Their mother? Not so much. Scribbling down words hardly seemed a creative endeavor in comparison to painting, drawing, or woodcarving. They’d never even seen the thin folder I kept hidden away in a cabinet: quirky sketches and pastel creations I’d saved from the art classes I’d loved as a teen.
That afternoon, I sat at my kitchen table, my mother’s pencil in hand, a sheet of plain white printer paper in front of me. I used to enjoy art classes, I thought wistfully, wondering if I’d retained any artistic ability. As a teen, I’d labored over sketches depicting the bare bones of winter trees, with looming trunks and spindly branches. I began sketching, pleased to see a tree taking form on the paper. I hadn’t noticed eleven-year-old Katie approach. I looked up when I heard a gasp, my eyes meeting Katie’s incredulous pair. I smiled at her apparent shock, holding up the pencil with a flourish.
“You drew that?” she asked. “You can’t draw. It really is a magic pencil. Can I try it next?”
This incident was a wake-up call for me regarding the topic of creativity. Could I just as easily have become an artist as a writer? Do some of us just need a “magic pencil” to believe in ourselves again? I began doing programs on creativity shortly after that, in early 2011, speaking to young mothers and groups of older women. The younger women commented they didn’t have time for creativity. The older women? Their comments were heartbreaking to me, ranging from “I don’t have any talent,” to “It’s too late for me now.” The seeds for my book were planted then and I wrote an outline for what would eventually become Called to Be Creative.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
We are all designed to create. Research proves this. There is something inside each one of us, whether that is a certain talent, a gift, an inherent creativity, or a calling. It is what we are born to do, and it is never too late to discover or reignite that. We each have a purpose. Our lives can become the masterpiece God intended. While my certainty of this might stem from my faith, it is supported by science. Humans are happier and healthier when they work creativity into their lives. I wrote Called to Be Creative not only to convince the reader of this, but to encourage and inspire those who may have been looking at the concept of creativity all wrong, convinced it is for someone else not them. I see it happen all the time in the classes and workshops I teach and in the creatives I profiled. A woman in her seventies is certain the poetry she has been writing for fifty years isn’t good enough for publication, but when she bravely faces the possibility of rejection and submits something that is accepted, she can’t stop writing and submitting. Or a man who reaches retirement age and picks up a hammer and chisel and attempts carving a piece of wood, then discovers he loves it so much he’d continue even if he never made a penny off of it. Being creative doesn’t just mean producing a tangible piece of art like a poem or a woodcarving. It can be as simple as honing the ability to think outside of the box for innovative solutions, or discovering a gift for gardening, baking, or working with children.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
#1) Be willing to face rejection. It comes with the territory. Even famous authors who have been on the New York Times bestseller list face rejection now and then. My caregiving through cancer book was rejected by 128 (I counted) agents and editors. If I’d given up, it would still be sitting in file cabinet. Which leads me to my next piece of wisdom.
#2) Do your research and target the correct markets. Don’t randomly throw arrows and hope you hit a deer. Reputable publishers and agents have an online presence and there is no excuse not to do your research to discover what agents or publishers are looking for and the correct editor to submit to. I needed to find the right fit for my caregiving book, Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage, and a publisher that recognized it was really a love story and not a book about cancer. It was all about finding the right fit.
#3) Follow the guidelines. Again, do your research when you are submitting to various markets. If an editor requests an outline and a synopsis, send the outline and synopsis. No more, and no less. If they want a book proposal, send a book proposal. If you don’t know what those things are, find out. There was no excuse for me to submit a 1500-word essay to the Chicken Soup editors when their guidelines specifically state 1200 words or less. Yet I made that rookie mistake early on in my writing career, after having my first essay accepted in 1996. Of course, I was rejected. They get thousands of submissions for each topic. They don’t need to pay attention to writers who can’t follow directions. You can bet I didn’t make that mistake again, and I’ve had several submissions accepted since.
#4) Keep learning. When I look back at all those years writing as a young mother as we struggled to make ends meet, I can’t believe I somehow found money in our tight budget to pay for writing magazine subscriptions. I instinctively knew that to succeed in writing, I needed to keep abreast of the publishing industry and learn from other writers. I’ve never stopped learning. I attend conferences, connect with other writers, learn from my mentors in the writing community, and continue to read and learn on the craft of writing. As a non-fiction writer, I also research the topics of my books. I read over forty books on creativity and delved into scientific research on the topic before and during the writing of my own book. The writer who thinks they know it all and can’t learn from anyone else isn’t a writer I want to befriend.
#5) The work has just begun when a book is released. All those months (or years) of research, writing, revising, working with an editor or publisher, and the day comes when your book is released. Now you can sit back and relax, right? Wrong. Now comes the work of promotion and marketing. Unless you are a famous writer working with a big publisher and they’ve set up book tours and give you a publicist who does the majority of the work for you, writers need to be able to market themselves and their books. This doesn’t come naturally to most of us, many who are naturally introverts who would rather be alone writing than out in the public, hawking our books and making sales. Oh, how I hated sitting behind a table at a bookstore, waiting for people to stop and buy my books. That is, until one of my mentors, Cecil Murphey, with over 130 books to his name, suggested I offer mini workshops at the bookstores instead of a straight “book signing.” What a difference it made. I love talking about my passions and interests and I’ve been able to design programs and workshops around the topics of each of my books. Sure enough, once people hear me talk about my book, they are more apt to purchase it.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Perseverance (also known as stubbornness) has paid off for me. There are so many times I could have just given up or stopped writing altogether. After the births of each of my children, when lack of sleep and time would have served as an excuse for not writing, I could have stopped. Instead, I wrote shorter pieces and targeted smaller magazines and newsletters. When my husband went through cancer and I became his caregiver, I could have abandoned writing. Instead, I wrote about the experience, holding his hand with one of mine during his chemotherapy or as he recovered in a hospital bed, while scribbling away on a legal pad with my other hand. When my husband died in 2012, I could have given up. He was the one who’d come up with the idea for me to write about the cultural phenomenon of extreme couponing, the one who’d believed it would be published. My partner in life, the man who believed in me and my book was gone. But instead of giving up, I was determined to get that book published, in his honor. For him. I signed a contract for Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories Behind America’s Extreme Obsession seven months after David’s death, and ended up signing five more book contracts in the ensuing six years.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I read a lot of non-fiction. According to my Goodreads account, I’ve read over 60 books this year, 90% of them non-fiction. I continue to read books related to creativity, gratitude, happiness, grief, and other topics I covered in my own books. I’m drawn to inspirational non-fiction, words that inspire and encourage, much like what I attempt to do in my own writing. I know a book is good if I’m taking notes in my journal, which is what I started doing after my husband died. I swear that words from those who had gone down the path of loss before me kept me sane, from authors like C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and H. Norman Wright. A Max Lucado daily devotional helped me so much, I ended up buying multiple copies to share with others. That said, occasionally I need an escape from reality, and that’s when I’ll turn to a good mystery or contemporary fiction. I tend to feel guilty if I’m not learning or “doing,” so I’ve chosen historical fiction just so I can pass it off in my mind as a learning experience.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love to start a “Creativity Movement” to convince each person of their own potential! I purchased thousands of vintage advertising pencils (like the one I discovered in my mother’s house) on eBay in anticipation of promoting my book through “Legacy of the Magic Pencil” presentations. I’d love to travel the country, passing out these “magic pencils” and letting people know that they have it within them to create and that all they need is a magic pencil (self-confidence) to begin their own creative journey.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My website: https://marypotterkenyon.wordpress.com/
Facebook: Mary Potter Kenyon
Instagram: Mary Potter Kenyon
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!