I just got back from an amazing week in Utah where my co-author, Chuck Sale, and I were hosted by several schools in Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs. Through a series of four presentations arranged by our wonderful publicist, Andrea Lunceford, we spoke to nearly 1,000 young people about our books and the writing process. The experience was exhilarating and memorable, but it didn’t start out that way.
Writing is a solitary endeavor. Promoting and selling books is not. Giving seminars on the writing and publishing process is not. I enjoyed writing The Successor and The Culling, but when our publicist arranged these events, it dawned on me that the safety of solitude was about to be withdrawn. I would soon be standing on a stage, holding a microphone, and presenting without any editorial safety net. Chuck, my editor and co-author, would be beside me doing his part of the presentation, but I was the lead, and he couldn’t very well stop me mid-sentence and suggest a better way to say what I had just said. I had fears and did not know what to expect.
After a particularly intense run-through an hour before the first presentation, I remember exclaiming to Chuck, “I can’t do this. I hate this!” His reply was simple and direct: “Yes, you can.” The man is all heart. But he was right. I could and I did. When I mounted the stage, I experienced a transformation. I looked around at the eager young faces staring up at me and realized I was looking into the future. Sitting before me were the writers, readers, mothers, fathers, and leaders of tomorrow. By agreeing to these presentations, I had agreed to play a small part in shaping their future. All my fears vanished behind the curtain of this privilege.
My thoughts went back to my own childhood. I never thought I would become a writer. I thought I would become an art teacher. I always had a sketch pad in my hand, even when I was very young. Some of my earliest memories are of lining up my stuffed animals so I could draw their portraits, which my mother then displayed proudly on the fridge.
When I was in 11th grade, I had a particularly wonderful art teacher. His name was Mr. Bertram. My father was in the military, which required my family to move around a lot. Entering the 11th grade, I found myself a stranger in yet another high school, essentially starting over again for the eighth time. I will always remember walking into Mr. Bertram’s class for the first time. He pulled me aside and questioned me about my art experience. I enthusiastically announced my love for working in pencil, pastel, and acrylic. Mr. Bertram waited patiently while I described some of the pictures that I had done in those mediums. I made it quite clear I did not do watercolor. His eyes twinkled as I announced my willingness to do a picture for him in any of my preferred mediums. With a broad smile he said, “Ok, Naomi, I want you to show me your art ability. You have a week to paint me a watercolor picture.” I was shocked. Didn’t he hear me? I tried to reason with him. No watercolor, absolutely not, beyond my ability. He simply smiled, walked back to his desk, and took a seat, indicating the matter was concluded. Watercolor it would be.
I spent the entire period in frustration. I looked through various water color designs, searching for a way to showcase my artistic abilities in a medium I feared and hated. Near the end of my second day of doing this, I realized I was quickly running out of time for completing the assignment. I did the only thing I could: I rolled up my sleeves and began.
My first brush strokes were tenuous and shaky, but by the end of the day they had become fluid, and by the end of the week I had created a beautiful watercolor portrait of a red-headed woodpecker clinging to a flowering dogwood tree. I was surprised by what I had accomplished. I went on to paint several more watercolor pictures; I became obsessed with the medium and soon ventured into mixed medium, pairing it with pastels. Mr. Bertram never reminded me of my previous dislike for watercolor. Instead, he bought me expensive watercolor paper, some of the best paint brushes, and paid $300 dollars out of his own pocket so I could attend a week-long artist seminar. Soon after, two of my watercolors were published in books.
Mr. Bertram had seen beyond the cocky, opinionated 16-year-old who didn’t do watercolor. He saw a self-imposed limitation and the endless possibilities that lay beyond it. He reached out to me and pulled me past myself. He changed my world forever.
I thank God for wonderful teachers like Mr. Bertram, and I now look forward with eagerness to my next round of school presentations. This is not because I love traveling (I don’t, I miss my family terribly) or – because I have a vast store of wisdom only I can impart. It is because I seek the honor and privilege of doing for others something like what Mr. Bertram did for me.
I conclude each of my school presentations with this advice, which I now offer to all who are reading this:
Dream big, and live what you dream. To all of the young people and all others who are young at heart I proclaim, don’t be afraid to dream, and live everyday like your future depends on it—because it does.
We just returned from four school presentations, including book signings, in Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain, Utah. I travelled from Colorado Springs, and Naomi travelled from Phoenix. All preparations at the venues were made by our publicist, Andrea Lunceford. Andrea worked tirelessly setting up the engagements, advertising them, and handling all logistics; Teri Sale, our business manager, assisted her and did the accounting piece. Our sincere thanks go out to these lovely ladies.
In addition to book signings, Naomi and I conducted four mini-seminars on the writing and publishing process. We took questions at the end of each seminar. The students listened attentively and interacted enthusiastically. I was pleasantly surprised at the degree of this attentiveness and interaction. I had expected less, given the ages of the youth and the fact that in their eyes we might be just more blah-blah-blah. To say they were on the edges of their seats might be an overstatement, but not by much. This speaks to Andrea’s advance work and the work of the teachers in preparing their students. Our thanks to all.
In the seminars and during the book signings, Naomi and I defined and discussed five secrets to success in the writing process. We talked about (1) how to capture inspiration; (2) how to maintain momentum; (3) how to explore where you are; (4) how to free yourself from chronology; and (5) how to use setbacks as stepping stones.
The video linked here captures some of our discussion of number 5. Naomi emphasized using setbacks—rejections, criticism, self-doubt, editing and editors, etc.—to move forward, while I addressed the myth of writer’s block. Hands shot up all over the auditorium when we called for questions. The audience microphone failed so I had to run ours to each questioner and back for our answers. There were at least twenty hands still raised when lunch was announced.
I spent thirty years in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). I saw many things; experienced many things; and in the course of this seeing and experiencing, took a broad sample of humanity—including my own. Typically, police who turn to writing fiction choose police procedurals, either as novels or screenplays. These procedurals are usually realistic or hyper-realistic. I took another path, drawing on my police and mountaineering experience to write sword-and-sorcery fantasy with Naomi Sawyer. I didn’t have the heart to sit in front of a computer screen rehashing police war stories for hours on end, or to focus on the tragedies people can make of their lives. Plenty of writers do have the heart for this, and their work is sometimes important. I took another path.
I want to sell books; that is necessary to keep going. But I want more: I want to plant seeds in readers young and old, to convey something of what lies beyond “realism,” beyond what we think we know, beyond ourselves. In every child there is an emerging adult, and in every adult there is a remembered child. Naomi and I write to both.
- Chuck Sale