Picking and Choosing

David Laskin’s breakout bestseller The Children’s Blizzard might never have sold over 100,000 copies or been described by the Washington Post as “a vital addition to the lore of Western immigrant pioneering” if either he or his agent had listened to a certain New York editor. The book tells the true story of an epic winter storm that hit the upper Midwest in 1888 and resulted in the deaths of several children surprised by the blizzard on their way home from school. Or, in the words of that particular editor: “It’s just about a bunch of kids who got trapped in a snowstorm and died.”

Obviously David, and his agent, and his eventual publisher, and the 100,000-plus readers who bought and supported the book thought it was about a bit more than that. The great challenge of being an author, however, is that the editor who passed on the book and all those people who loved the book were both right. It is both a tragic portrait of luck and loss, and a brutal but meaningless anecdote. Depending on who you are, what you’ve lived, what you’re interested in, what you long for, and what you’re tired of, the Children’s Blizzard could be either.

This reality lives within every author. We tell the stories we tell and in the way we tell them because of what holds our curiosity and lights our imagination. But for every heads there is always a tails. No matter how perfectly a story is told, if we turn that story over and view it through the cruel lens of “what if?” we will behold a thing familiar in form but foreign in value.

Do not believe your story’s true value is a coin flip. It was not chance that led that one editor to pass, any more than it was chance that led David to tell his story – it was life. Life and its constant and unknowable movement toward love, a movement that is sometimes mistaken for rejection and acceptance, for praise and criticism, words we use to name the picking and choosing necessary to surround ourselves with the stories and people we love the most.


Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion.

"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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