Whatever It Takes
by Bill Kenower
Until recently, I had never liked the idea that you’ve got to do “whatever it takes” to get where you want to go. I was profoundly suspicious of the “whatever” part of this maxim, especially as it applied to those in the arts. It suggested that life was too short and too lean for anyone to hang onto anything as encumbering as ideals. Reality, this notion seemed to say, required steep compromise, constant sacrifice, and an overall willingness to go where you would have otherwise thought undesirable. Once you’re rich you can revisit your ideals; until then, the cupboard is bare.
I was born an idealist, and I will die one. That is to say, I do not think we are trudging through this life to fill our larders and keep the roof in one piece, necessary as these things may be. I have always believed that larders and roofs are merely a by-product of some greater goal, a goal dangerously, it may seem sometimes, unconcerned with the dirty business of not-dying. This is what often gets called idealism.
To some degree, you could say that every writer is an idealist. I’ve heard enough gloom-speak from enough publishing professionals in my life to know that if you believe you can make a living writing you are to some degree moving against the current of conventional wisdom. Oh, the odds of getting published! Oh, the shrinking advances! Oh, no one reads anymore! The barbarians are at the gate, and we’re running low on arrows. And yet people still want to write and be writers and make a living at it, and to these souls I now say, with full confidence and without a shred of cynicism—you’ve got to do whatever it takes.
We have to do whatever it takes because we never know how we will get to wherever it is we want to go. In fact, we might not even know where it is we are going. Someone, and I will call her Lola, might think: “I want to write fiction for a living.” Wonderful. But Lola might also think, “The only fiction writers who make any money are commercial fiction writers so I will write suspense Robert Dugoni became a bestselling author only after doing “whatever it takes.” Listen to his story.
novels.” Only to find out she doesn’t want to write suspense novels. The suspense novels, after all, were only an idea, but the writing of them is the reality. Yet if Lola clings to her belief that she must be a suspense writer, she will never realize her true ideal, which is everyone’s true ideal, which is to do whatever makes her happiest.
That is the only ideal, and often, it is not until we put our ideas of what we think will make us happiest into practice that we begin to discover where our true joy lies. Joy is the truest guiding force, yet joy is not an object or a place or a career. Joy is only a feeling, and all you can ever do is ask yourself, “Does this make me happy?” “Do I like this sentence, this story, this woman, this house?” If the answer is yes, away you go. If the answer is no, try again.
It is that simple, but of course it also is not. It is not that simple because of our ideas of what must be or, worse yet, what is. It is for this reason, I think, that idealism gets the bad rap it rather deserves. Which is to say, never decide ahead of time what will make you happy; never decide ahead of time what is. That is false idealism. You must discover what will make you happiest. Most novelists I interview report that the novel they started and the novel they finished were fairly different creatures. That is because they started with one idea of what they wanted—which is where you must always begin—but ended with what they actually wanted. They allowed the book to be what they wanted it to be, not what they thought it should be.
So I am still an idealist, I guess, but a more open-minded one. When I was a freshman in college, a very earnest fellow freshman said to me, “Bill, you seem like someone who likes ideas.” And I thought at the time, “No, I don’t like ideas. I like action.” In this regard, I haven’t changed. Ideas are merely seeds. Flowers can’t grow without them, but no one has ever handed me a bouquet of seeds. The beauty of the flower is the beauty of the idea evolved through action—the blossom and thrill of discovery.
Bill Kenower is Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine and a full-time freelance writer. He lives in Seattle.