Whatever It Takes
by Bill Kenower
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
Kenower is Editor-in-Chief of Author magazine and a full-time
freelance writer. He lives in Seattle.