Thomas E. Kennedy: ‘The writer as water’
For me, Thomas E. Kennedy is the emblem of persistence. It took Kennedy 20 years to publish his first story. In the 20 years following that first publication, he has published 40 books, more than 100 short stories, and numerous essays, translations, and anthologies. He won the O. Henry Prize in 1994, the Pushcart Prize in 1990, the European Magazine Prize in 1995, and in 1988 he was given the Charles Angoff Award. He won the National Magazine Award in 2008. His works have been translated into Danish and Serbo-Croatian. From 2010 to 2014, Bloomsbury published the four novels of Kennedy’s “Copenhagen Quartet” (In the Company of Angels; Falling Sideways; Beneath the Neon Egg; Kerrigan in Copenhagen: A Love Story). Kennedy’s place in American letters has grown exponentially in the past decade, a decade in which it seems he has come out of nowhere to establish himself as one of this country’s most beloved and respected storytellers whose influence has taught yours truly to persevere in spite of all the rejections that I (along with countless other writers) have experienced over the course of 30-plus years of tinkering with words and trying to master a craft that sometimes seems beyond my talent. Kennedy has been my inspiration. Whenever the words won’t come, I grab one of his books and read page after page until Kennedy’s rhythm, his style, his tone fills my head. More often than not, I find myself back at my desk pounding the keys as fast as I can.
Some years ago, I asked Mr. Kennedy how he was able to handle 20 years of rejection. He told me that he once wrote an article about rejection and sold it to Poets & Writers. He said he researched the subject and found out that many writers had sent their stories out over and over, sometimes as many as 70 times. His research told him that one of America’s greatest short story writers, the late Andre Dubus, had sent one of his stories out 38 times before it found a home. The article on rejection gave Kennedy a better perspective on himself as a writer experiencing dozens of rejections, and he said: “You realize it’s not personal. You learn to be the water that wears away the stone.”
I tucked that quote away. I repeat it to myself every time I get a “thanks but no thanks” from some editor toiling to find a story that knocks his/her socks off. I’ve been an editor and know what it’s like to find such a treasure and be able to send an enthusiastic “Yes!” back to its author.
When I asked Kennedy if during his period of so much rejection had he ever thought about quitting, “sure,” he said. “But the next day I’d be back at my keyboard. A writer produces a story in much the same way that an oyster produces a pearl, through pain and worry and irritation, and half the time you have trouble even giving the thing away. But don’t dwell on it. Your business is to write the best you can. To tell you the truth, after that initial 20 years of frustration, every time I sell a story now I still feel like a kid on Christmas who just opened the greatest present ever. I feel truly privileged to get so much attention now for doing something I love. Writing is the reward. The rest is gravy.”
STUDY THE MASTERS
“Read, read, read. Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it…”
Learn what works, and what doesn’t. Great work is bound to influence you. This doesn’t mean being a copycat or anything of that sort; it means absorbing what you can about effective storytelling and insightful perspectives on the world. But go beyond this – find out about successful novelists’ lives, the way they’ve stuck it out for the long haul, and what they have to say about that precious quality every serous writer possesses: persistence.
Jack Smith is the author of four novels, three books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews. His collection of articles on fiction writing, Inventing the World, was recently published by Serving House Books.