Mary Potter Kenyon: “The hardest part is getting started”

…My book inspires the reader to discover what it is they were designed to do. Look to your childhood because that’s where your dreams and interests lie. What is it now, as an adult, you can get lost in? Because when you discover that? You uncover your purpose and your passion. It doesn’t mean creating […]

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…My book inspires the reader to discover what it is they were designed to do. Look to your childhood because that’s where your dreams and interests lie. What is it now, as an adult, you can get lost in? Because when you discover that? You uncover your purpose and your passion. It doesn’t mean creating a piece of art to hang on a wall. Instead, it could be creating a life that is fulfilling; a life that becomes the masterpiece.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mary Potter Kenyon who graduated with a BA in Psychology from the University of Northern Iowa. She is a certified grief counselor and Program Coordinator at Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. She is currently taking online training to become a “Healing Circles” facilitator as well as an Art Therapy coach. Mary is the author of seven books, including the recently released “Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity.” Mary conducts workshops on living a creative life and expressive writing for healing and founded an annual grief retreat that incorporates creativity into the healing process.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in a small town in Iowa, the seventh of ten children. Until I began attending parochial school, where I encountered bullying for my unfortunate economic status, I didn’t realize my family was poor, which speaks highly of my parents. My eventual graduation from college could be attributed to my participation in the inaugural government-funded Head Start program in 1965, designed to allow children growing up in poverty the preschool experience. I suspect my success had much more to do with the quality of my home experience, where library books filled every end table and crayons were a staple, even when reams of paper were not. We resorted to drawing on newspapers and brown paper sacks from the grocery store. I skipped Kindergarten altogether, learning to read by memorizing words from my older sister’s Dick and Jane reader. Despite my father dropping out of eighth grade to help support his family after his father died and my mother not pursuing the art degree she’d begun; it was obvious my parents believed in lifelong learning. Innovative in his resourcefulness, long before You-Tube tutorials, my father educated himself through books and trial and error, on the fine art of poultry care, home and vehicle repair and taking apart two non-working stereos to create a single functioning one. My mother beautified our simple home with wall hangings designed from burlap and buttons, handstitched quilts, rag rugs, and later in life, her wood carvings and paintings. They believed each of their children had a purpose and they encouraged them to follow their passions. For me, that meant a mother who snuck a Big Chief writing tablet into my sock drawer when I was ten years old and a father who advised me as a teen who loved speech contests to always use my speaking abilities for “good, not evil.”

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

As a child, I loved reading books with characters who were like me; poor, bullied or made fun of, outsiders for whatever reason. Of course, I wanted only happy endings for those characters. “Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh was the first book that prompted me to action. For an entire summer I carried a notebook with me, taking notes as I observed our neighbors, sometimes sneaking up to their windows to do so, which in retrospect, wasn’t a good idea. One phone call from an irate mother who claimed her daughter caught me peeping into her bedroom was all it took for my parents to forbid me from future spying endeavors. I hadn’t been fascinated by the daughter, but the open closet filled with more clothing than I could ever imagine owning. Later, as a young teen, it was “Look Through My Window,” by Jean Little, where the protagonist, Emily, has secret dreams to be a writer, mirroring my own secret desire. I named one of my daughters Emily after that character. As an adult, I’ve read many books that have changed my life, most notably those by women who had managed to write while raising a family, including the Crosswicks series of journals by Madeleine L’Engle and “How to Be a Successful Housewife Writer” by Elaine Fantle Shimberg, later revamped as “Write Where You Live.”

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

One of the reasons I conduct Beginning Writing workshops is because I want to save new writers from making the same mistakes I did. The fact that I addressed one male editor as Ms. in a query letter, for instance, when if I’d done my homework, I could have discovered the gender-neutral name belonged to a man. Or, in pitching one of my earlier manuscripts, going down a list of agents alphabetically instead of learning about each agent and targeting my pitch to those who represented what I was attempting to sell. I was just throwing out arrows, hoping I’d hit a deer. Both of these examples have become entertaining anecdotes in my workshops. They also make me approachable as an instructor and fellow human being.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

I’m convinced we are all born with an instinctive desire to create. My book, Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity, shares a bit of the science and research that supports this claim. We often lose some, or all that desire as we grow up, for a wide variety of reasons. We were told not to color outside of the lines, or a parent or teacher steered us away from the career our heart wanted, we attempted something and failed, or we got busy raising a family or had to get a job just to pay the bills. Life got in the way.

A few of us never lost sight of what it was we were created to do, and I profile a young man in my book who is the epitome of that. Steve always knew what he wanted to do and never stopped pursuing his goal, until nearing forty, he obtained his life’s dream, to become a Garbage Pail Kids’ artist. Even I, as a busy homeschooling mother of eight, managed to continue freelance writing as I raised a family. But that gift for public speaking my father identified when I was in high school? I could barely string two sentences together as a somewhat isolated mother at home. I didn’t return to public elocution for another forty years. The first time I stood in front of a group to speak, which happened to be just a few months before my husband died, he marveled that I’d “come alive” in front of an audience. He was right. I never feel more alive than when I am doing public speaking.

That’s what I want for everyone, and my book inspires the reader to discover what it is they were designed to do. Look to your childhood because that’s where your dreams and interests lie. What is it now, as an adult, you can get lost in? Because when you discover that? You uncover your purpose and your passion. It doesn’t mean creating a piece of art to hang on a wall. Instead, it could be creating a life that is fulfilling; a life that becomes the masterpiece.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I profile a woman I met in the Lifelong Learner’s group I formed, a tribe of women who fed my creative energy with their enthusiasm. Sue had been writing for fifty years, yet she’d never submitted her work for publication, outside of single poem she’d written as a college student. When she began sharing some of her poetry and prose, I was blown away by the beauty of it and couldn’t believe she wasn’t published. I asked why she hadn’t submitted some of her work.

“It’s not good enough,” she replied.

I was dumbfounded. A former teacher, with a reputation for encouraging her students, a woman who’d continued writing poetry for fifty years, whose lyrical language pleased both ear and heart, didn’t believe in the worth of her words? Sue feared rejection.

We all fear rejection. We fear failure. Toddlers don’t care if they color inside the lines or if their art is messy or their clay creation doesn’t look like someone else’s. They color with wild abandon, pink trees and blue bunnies. They get paint on their clothes and in their hair when they fingerpaint. They make forts with boxes and have imaginary friends. Children are naturally creative and imaginative until they learn to tone down their creative flair, to fit in.

I told Sue what I tell my readers: we have to allow ourselves to fail. I reminded her how I’d failed miserably when our group attempted to play ukuleles, yet I ‘d had fun trying. I told her that the only writers who never get rejections are the ones who don’t submit anything. With my encouragement, Sue submitted one essay. I’ll never forget the day she told me about the acceptance. Her eyes were lit up with an excitement I’d yet to see in her. That light has not gone out. She has continued to submit her work, with some success. I am honored and humbled to be a part of that in someone’s life, to see that light go on, watch others get lost in their passions and purpose.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

When my mother died in 2010, she left behind a legacy of creativity in the paintings, woodcarvings, and other art she’d created and sold over a period of forty years. She also left behind her words in unpublished manuscripts, a memory book, and letters she’d written. My husband encouraged me to use her house as a private writing retreat and I eagerly accepted the gift of time and solitude. That winter, I pored over Mom’s words, reflecting on the example of creativity that had inspired me to follow my own heart. I vowed to take my writing seriously, to live the kind of life my mother had believed I could. It was in her house I wrote one of my first speeches as an adult. I created a power point presentation on utilizing creativity in everyday life. My first speaking engagement was for a group of young homeschooling moms. They spoke animatedly about their children’s inherent creativity but became subdued when I asked about their own. I was dismayed to discover they either claimed no time for themselves or were waiting to pursue their own interests after their children were grown. A few weeks later, I spoke to women at the other end of the spectrum; those in their seventies and eighties. Again, none of the women doubted their children’s talents, but when I asked about theirs, the answers ranged from “I don’t have any talents,” to the heartbreaking “It’s too late for me now.”

That was my aha moment, when I thought there had to be a book in what I’d witnessed in those two groups and what my mother and I believed: we each have it in us to be creative. It was early 2011 when I wrote an outline for a book on using our natural creativity in everyday life. It took me six years, multiple losses and a job that should have been perfect for me but made me miserable before I picked up that outline and began writing the book that would encourage and inspire others to discover what it is they are called to do and find ways to incorporate that into their life.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’ve heard from men and women who tell me my book has inspired them to try some art form they’d long ago abandoned, writing, painting, or a musical instrument. While I’m eager to return to in-person workshops, my virtual events have been attended by mostly middle-age or older adults who are restless with a deep inner longing for something creative, even if they aren’t sure what that something is. I keep copies of all my fan mail, even though most of it is via e-mail now rather than letters, but my favorite since the publication of the book was from a woman who shared that she hadn’t seen herself as creative since high school, until she read my book. She wanted me to know she’d picked up a paintbrush for the first time in thirty years and it was a wonderful feeling. She said I’d given her permission to play again. We all need more play in our lives.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

#1) We need to broaden our definition of what Creativity entails. Ask someone what they think creativity is and their answers reveal how narrow the definition can be: art, music, drama. Painters known for their works of art, famous musicians or stars on Broadway. We don’t have any qualms about labeling these people creative. But what about someone who has a knack for gardening or baking? Or the person with a gift for listening or working with children? Creativity is about being able to come up with innovative ways to do things. Daydreamers and those who think outside the box are creatives too.

#2) Stop equating money with value. How many of our young people are steered toward a career that will make them money, instead of what makes them come alive? I saw this with my own daughter when she informed me she was pursuing a career in nursing, because she wouldn’t be able to make a living off her art. I connected her with a freelance artist who did make a living at it, though she admitted it wasn’t always easy and there had been some lean times. While she would have made a wonderful nurse, I was relieved when Emily changed her major to art, as I knew she was happiest when she was creating. Now the mother of a rambunctious toddler, she makes a modest income with her freelance work.

#3) Encourage creativity in the workplace and the home. NASA knows their best engineers are those that can think outside the box. That’s why George Land developed a creativity test to select innovative engineers and scientists way back in 1965. Brainstorming sessions, operating on the strengths of each employee, and yes, allowing failure as an option when we try new things is just as important in the workplace as it is in home. As long as we view creativity as something for leisure time, we’re missing opportunities to practice it. Because who has leisure time? Instead, we need to make space for it in our lives and workplace. We will be healthier, happier, and more productive when we practice creativity in our everyday life.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A true leader encourages and supports a person to be the best they can be. They inspire trust in those they lead. Leadership isn’t about power over someone. A leader understands what each individual brings to the team and knows how to bring out the best in people.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

#1) The hardest part is getting started. Someone did tell me this, but because the advice was coming from a non-writing spouse, I’m not sure I listened at first. I’d been writing for twenty years when I went through a rough period, paralyzed by doubt over my first big book project. A book on the cultural phenomenon of extreme couponing had been my husband David’s idea. I’d lived and breathed the topic for thirty years, had done the research, but couldn’t get past an outline. My husband finally convinced me to “just get started” on the morning of July 4, 2009. I sat at the kitchen table and did just that. When David interrupted me to ask if we were going to my mother’s house for our annual picnic, I looked at the clock and realized eight hours had passed and I was still in my pajamas. Even today, almost nine years after his death, if I have trouble getting past that initial outline, I can hear him say “Just get started.” Nine times out of ten, that’s all it takes.

#2) The work is just beginning when your book is accepted for publication. I wish being a writer meant I could just sit and write all day, words flowing out of me. Then when a book is released, I’d sit and relax while royalties poured in. That’s not reality. Writing is hard work. There are certainly days when the words flow. I often begin writing in the morning, only to glance at the clock and realize hours have passed. But editing and revising is hard. Facing rejection repeatedly is not for the faint of heart. When the book comes out, unless you are famous, you need to market and promote your own book. Most writers are not natural salespeople.

#3) If you want to write a book, don’t choose a topic you aren’t excited about. I’m not talking about writing you might have to do in the workplace, where reports or newsletters are part of your job. I’ve been a reporter for a newspaper so I know what it’s like to cover legislative coffees, city council meetings or agriculture-related stories that I’m not really interested in, but I wouldn’t choose to write a book on any of those topics. I have a passion for each of the topics I’ve covered in the seven books I’ve had published. I can wax eloquently on extreme couponing, caregiving, grief, female friendship and creativity, and do — on podcasts, radio shows, and in my workshops and presentations. When someone is telling me about their latest book project and I see little or no expression on their face or light in their eyes, I ask them why they are writing on that topic. Usually, it’s because someone told them agents or editor are looking for manuscripts on that topic or it is the current ‘next big thing,’ not because they care about it. I tell them to reconsider their topic or genre. If you aren’t excited about your book, why would an agent or publisher be excited about it? Lack of enthusiasm shows in your writing.

#4) Sometimes your writing is for yourself, not for an audience. Some of my best writing has never been published. Why? It turned out the writing I was doing was a way of working something out in my head, or in this case, on paper. That’s painful for someone to hear when they’ve been writing their way through trauma or difficult life experiences, certain their writing can help someone else through the same or a similar experience. They are probably right, but that doesn’t mean the raw pain of their thoughts and feelings is a book. Pieces of their writing might be incorporated into a book at some point, and I’ve incorporated passages from my journal into my grief writing, but my journal itself is not publishable material. Except, of course, if I am famous one day, and then my journals and letters are fair game, but they’d require a pretty ruthless editor.

#5) There’s always something new to learn. I don’t want to meet the writer who thinks he (or she) knows everything there is to know about writing or publishing. Actually, I have met them, and I don’t buy their books anymore. That goes for any professional. There is always something to learn and none of us knows everything there is to know about our craft. We can learn from someone a little farther down our chosen path, someone more experienced. We can learn from our own mistakes, if we are humble enough to admit we make them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty, they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug’ is just a wee voice telling you, ‘I’d like my crayons back, please.;” — Hugh MacLeod, in Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity

This quote exemplifies everything I believe about creativity. It is how I have lived my life as a mother and a writer. From the way I claimed a creative space in my life even as I raised eight children, my choice to homeschool, and my patterns of thinking outside of the box, I’ve been clutching that box of crayons since childhood.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Mary Potter Kenyon on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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