Most writers seem to have self-doubt genetically encoded into their beings. Every word, on every page, fights with an undercurrent of chronic anxiety: this sucks. Wait, well—maybe it doesn’t. No, this really sucks. And it is no wonder; even Ernest Hemmingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” So writers constantly have to confront—there really is not a better word for it—shit.
But then there are the moments that come, rare, few, when we know our words ring with universality; we know that the words are right, bigger than us, beautiful. And when this clarity comes, it cuts through our doubts as crisply as the sound of ice cracking on Lake Superior. We chase that rapture.
Like most writers, I have been stalked by self-doubt; but beyond normal reservations about my chances of getting a book published, I have been haunted by a probability dilemma: I went to high school with Chuck Klosterman.
Why does this matter? Well, the idea that one published author might emerge from a rural town on the edge of North Dakota is a little wild. And we have celebrated this piece of trivia: Chuck lived here. We are tickled when he pops up on TV or we catch a familiar voice on the radio; with some awe, we imagine him, the kid we knew in school, sitting down to interview Billy Joel or Brittney Spears. Given Chuck’s success, it seemed implausible that another successful writer would spring from Wyndmere.
I have not come across any legitimate studies about small town writers to validate my fears. But who needs studies? We are told, short of a miracle, that the work of few writers will find its way into the world. As time passes, we bump into other writers and learn that their writing practices have shrunk to nothing, like dehydrated mushrooms. The smaller the thing you care about becomes, the less it seems to hurt.
When people would encourage my writing, finding value in it, moved by it, even, I’d often say, out of self-deprecating habit, “But what are the odds? I went to high school with Chuck.” Despite my curse, I kept writing. And the only way to explain to anyone, especially my farmer dad, why one would spend hours, perhaps thousands of them, doing something without a monetary yield, is that to put words on the page, to make meaning with them, is to constantly chase that rapture.
After several years of writing, I finished a book. And then something strange happened. I got an agent, and my agent then sent my book to presses, and I got one of those too—a good one. Something seemed wrong with my statistical prediction, but then again, I was never any good at math.
In addition to the doubts echoing in my writer’s mind, there was a little sliver of wisdom I had gleaned from a talk by a well-known author many years ago. When asked how one can get published, the author said something along these lines: just write. Write a lot. If you are good, they will find you. You will get published. I understood her “they” to refer to people in the pub-lishing industry. After that talk I started to think of these people as the “book people.” I imagined them with gigantic butterfly nets, reaching into the ether and pulling down what was good. I knew, then, deep down, that my chances of getting published had nothing to do with Chuck, but with me.
As news of my recently published memoir Prairie Silence circulated, people started congratulating me on Facebook, and my former schoolmate, Chuck, weighed in: “The per capita ratio of writers from Wyndmere is one for every 214.5 citizens. If this was the case for Fargo-Moorhead, that would equate to roughly 973 published authors. This is either a complete coincidence or a very positive reflection on Brenda Tamlyn’s teaching career.” Brenda Tamlyn was our English teacher.
As I embark upon my new venture as a published author, I know I have nowhere near Chuck’s notoriety. (In farm-kid terms: I am a kernel of corn; he’s is the entire harvest). He is, in my mind, a prolific, gifted, wickedly smart writer. And so when I think about my chances of quitting my day job, I presume I am doomed. I mean, what are the odds of two people from Wyndmere making their living as a writer? We’ll have to see how far Mrs. Tamlyn’s hard work goes, and pray I really do stink at stats.