Learn from the Success of Others

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Every so often I bring up an author from the past to find lessons from his or her road to publication that offer instruction and inspiration for writers today.  An author I’ve been corresponding with recently mentioned Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Marjorie was born in 1896, but her journey provides meaningful insights even in today’s publishing climate.

Marjorie Rawlings recognized her love of nature at an early age. It was passed on from her father’s love of their Maryland farm and from spending summers at her maternal grandparents’ farm in Michigan. Her strong affinity for small rural towns, the soil, and the people who lived and did the tilling and planting there, instinctively provided direction for her future.

After a number of unsatisfying jobs following college, she moved to the Florida frontier in 1928. You might not think others would be that interested in the same things that stir your passions, but Marjorie didn’t think that way. She wrote about that which she connected and loved. She was true to who she was. You’ve heard us say more than once here on this blog that you shouldn’t force yourself to write in a genre or topic just because it’s currently popular. Some things in publishing don’t change. Marjorie’s example underscores this advice. She couldn’t have known how many readers would be interested in stories about such an offbeat place as Cross Creek, Florida, with its swamps, reptiles, animals in the wild, and the scratch-a-daily-meal kind of people who lived there—things she considered beautiful. This place became the inspiration for her future writing. Rawlings Yearling

Marjorie knew a masterful book involved more than passion for the story or topic. She had recognized her gift for writing at a young age and published her first short stories in the Washington Post when she was fourteen. A drama and writing student, she wrote for her college’s literary magazine and eventually became a feature writer for various newspapers. Not only did she study and practice her writing for years, but she also spent her first two years in Cross Creek studying her surroundings and getting to know the Cracker people, as they were called, before submitting her first work about the area to a magazine.

Her years of study and practice paid off. A well-known editor, who had worked with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe, noticed her vignettes about Cross Creek and saw her as a diamond in the rough. As he worked with her on her writing, she also immersed herself in learning more about the scrub life of the hardy Cross Creek residents. She developed a deep empathy and respect for them that came through in her Cross Creek novels.  

Marjorie’s dedication to her writing was fervent and focused. She was known to celebrate after writing a perfect paragraph. We can deduce that she didn’t rush her writing, but instead massaged every phrase and sentence until it was perfect. How good an author had she become? Her novel South Moon Under was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and she won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for her novel, The Yearling. MGM purchased the film rights and released the movie in 1946, bringing her fame.

Marjorie labored for ten years to write her next, and last, book. Granted she had things going on in her personal life that distracted her, but still, the fact that the writing process was such a struggle perhaps should been a yellow warning light to her. She veered in a different direction from what we would view as her established brand today. The Sojourner focused on the small, close-to-the-soil environment that she loved, but for some reason she chose a different setting, near her maternal grandfather’s farm in Michigan, rather than her beloved rural Florida. The book was not a success. She died soon after the book’s release so we’ll never know if she could have succeeded in developing depth of passion and empathy for rural Michigan farmers that brought her fame for her Cross Creek novels.  

Let’s get a great discussion going. What struck you most about Marjorie Rawlings’ writing journey? How does her journey challenge you? What about it encourages and inspires you?

TWEETABLES:

Gain direction for your own writing journey from successful author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Click to Tweet.

Learn important lessons for the writing journey from a successful author of the past. Click to Tweet.

Share This:



33 Comments

  • A fascinating post, Mary, thank you! I found it inspiring to learn how much care she took with each paragraph– never letting “good enough” be good enough. I admire that kind of perseverance and dedication. I have not read The Yearling or her other books, but I’m inspired to find them!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Yes, she was a dedicated, life-long student of the craft. I found that amazing too, Joanne.

    • I read The Yearling years ago, but remember the story well. The characters were very real and the conflict true to the time and area, Joanne. You should give it a read, but best have your tissues handy.

      It is good to write about characters you can know.

  • I read ‘The Yearling’ as a school assignment when I was 12, and still remember it quite well.

    ‘The Yearling’ would seem to show that The Great American Novel is not a myth – it’s just that it can only cover a facet of this large and complex country.

    Rawlings’ work captured and defined the Cracker culture of her day for all time; no subsequent novel will be able to avoid comparison. It’s refreshing to think that one can aspire to that sort of legacy.

    That may be the reason behind her failure with ‘The Sojourner’; she became identified so intensely as a chronicler of the life of a specific region that shifting the setting to Michigan simply didn’t ring true.

    Another problem may have been the timing – the national mood was very different after WW2. Our cultural milieu embraced jet engines and radar and television and rockets – and a hard, bright future. No one really wanted to read about hardscrabble farmers in a Michigan that only conjured memories of a Depression that was a fading nightmare.

    But I can relate to her love for the craft; I don’t celebrate a perfect paragraph, because I can’t write one. But “it’s awkward bit I’ll let it stand” is not part of my attitude. It’s got to be right.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      To Marjorie’s surprise, a Cracker friend filed a lawsuit against her for invasion of privacy. After a long legal debate, the judge ruled in the plaintiff’s favor but charged Marjorie only $1.00, which speaks volumes. Eventually, the friendship was restored, but perhaps this is what led Marjorie to move on to write about rural Michigan.

      Keep at that perfect paragraph and writing about what stirs your passion, Andrew. You will get there.

      • I caught the tail-end of the Cracker culture, in the 80s. Satellite TV was eroding it, and the Internet and cell phones have sounded its final bell.

        Privacy was so valued – I can well believe that Rawlings was rather resented by some. When they accepted you, that acceptance came with a trust.

        It was best not to break it. A lawsuit was an easy consequence.

        Back to working on the Perfect Paragraph!

  • What a fascinating story. The way Marjorie immersed herself in the lives of those who she wrote about must have added great depth to her stories. Seeing how long she took to complete a book…..Wow. I haven’t read The Yearling, but it sounds like I need to. :)

    Thank you for sharing Marjorie Rawlings’ story. It’s inspiring!

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      I think you nailed it, Jeanne. Taking the time to know your characters–what makes them tick, their history, why they feel and act the way they do, their individual personalities and temperaments–and then communicating that depth on the written page in a way that readers feel, sense, and connect with them is the stuff of great writing.

  • It’s always fascinating to read about another writer’s journey, Mary. It does make me wonder, though, what would have become of her Michigan novel(s) if she had lived longer. You said she veered away from her brand. Some authors can achieve a course change like that, but some can’t. Interesting questions for us all, no matter where we are in the publishing journey.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Meghan, in current times when an author move away from an established brand, it essentially means starting over with a new audience. In Marjorie’s day with the level of writing ability she possessed, she may have been able to succeed, given time to know her new characters as deeply as she knew the Cracker people. That is a key factor.

      But she was also dealing with the loss of her incredible, long-time editor, Maxwell Perkins.

  • Michelle Ule Michelle Ule says:

    Just so you know, Max Perkins was that fantastic editor and if we could all have someone like that in our lives, the writing world would be a much better place.

    He MADE Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe. They could not have become the successes they got without him. Wolfe, in particular, took loans from Perkins so he could carry on and then “rewarded” Perkins with a manuscript so massive–250K words? I can remember now–Perkins nearly went under trying to edit it.

    Here’s the link to Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by Scott Berg: http://www.amazon.com/Max-Perkins-A-Scott-Berg/dp/042522337X

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      Yes, THE Maxwell Perkins was her editor. It’s a testament to her that he sought her out. Marjorie is known to have said that if she outlived him, she would quit writing. His sudden death in 1947 was an “unspeakable grief” to her and drastically hampered her confidence in her writing.

      This and the fact that she had moved away from writing about what she knew so well likely contributed to her struggle in writing The Sojourner and its subsequent lack of success.

  • Thanks for sharing this wonderful and inspiring story. For me it is one of writing what you know and using your passion to guide you. As I review my own writing, I realize I haven’t always done either. During an interview, I was asked which of my books–published or unpublished–I would like to live in and I had to admit none. The time periods I write about are much too difficult without the modern conveniences I’ve come to love (the clothes dryer died yesterday, so that’s on my mind). I’ve also said that I tend to hide my snarky, sarcastic side when I write, since I don’t think it’s a very Christian viewpoint. I sometimes wonder, however, if writing for an older audience in my “true” voice would help–even if I never publish it.

  • The angle and perspective that Marjorie took in her writing was unique, in large part, because she immersed herself in the setting.

    I love novels where the setting creates a framework that couldn’t exist in a different location.

    I’m inspired by the state I grew up in and still occupy, so perhaps that’s why the story ideas I’m stewing over emerge from nearby historical sites I’ve visited.

    Frequently, CBA historical romance is set in the bible belt or the eastern states.
    Mary, do you feel like publishers are interested in more historical fiction set in the West?

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      If I told you I’m sensing preference for a particular section of the country today, you can be sure it would change within a couple of months. Don’t worry about that. What matters more is an engaging, beautifully crafted story about characters and places you have a passion for. I hope that helps, Jenni.

  • This woman fascinates me, but I’m sad to say, I never read The Yearling.

    Studying people for years before she wrote? Holy cow! Then ten years between books? Whoa.

    For me, I need to remember that I am not in a race, that God has this under His wing, and I cannot rush Him. I need to take my time at getting things to their best. After all isn’t good the enemy of best? Or something? (Andrew? Where’s that quote from?)

    But if I rush myself, it shows. Like, with flags and stuff.
    And play-by-play announcers, “I don’t know about you Bob, but I think Major fumbled the level of emotional impact and needs to go back a few paragraphs and re-work the kindergarten level of sentence structure and ditch the telling.”

    Basically, I need to put my hand to the plow and not look back, or sideways.

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I love the fact she “celebrated”. Sometimes in the pursuit of humility and trying to stay focused in learning, I think we (I) bypass my successes as prideful. While anything I write that is “successful” is truly a gift and glory to God, it IS worth celebrating. Taking delight in what we do — that perfect scene, that poetic string of words, that moment you’re so enraptured by your story you forgot you wrote it. CELEBRATE and enjoy!

  • Karla Akins says:

    THE YEARLING was the first book I’d ever read (as a 6th grader) that made me cry. After I read it, I knew I wanted to write books that made people feel the emotions she made me feel. I literally bawled like a baby at the end of that book. I had such a physical reaction from it, it truly influenced me in a permanent way. I can still remember lying in the top bunk of my bed, sick with the mumps on both sides of my face, and throwing the book to the foot of my bed because it upset me so much. I was delighted and enthralled with the prospect of causing such a reaction in my readers, too. (I knew by then I was a writer.) I agree that quality is more important than quantity and it’s reassuring to know that no writer is perfect. We’re all on this amazing journey and we have to dig deep to find that magical *thing* that creates a Pulitzer.

  • I love hearing stories about authors who write about a specific place. Growing up, I was considered unusual for loving my hometown. When most people couldn’t wait to graduate and move on, I dreaded the years away at college–and rushed back home when we were done to start our lives (I married my high school sweetheart). I knew, since I was about thirteen, that I wanted to share my love and passion for central Minnesota with anyone who would read my stories-but especially with those who live right in my hometown and can’t see it for themselves. My favorite authors growing up were authors who wrote about their homes (Lousia May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maud Hart Lovelace). They took their passion, laid it on the page, and in a miraculous way, their passion becomes ours. Rawlings did the same thing. That’s what I want to do.

  • I love hearing stories about authors who write about a specific place. Growing up, I was considered unusual for loving my hometown. When most people couldn’t wait to graduate and move on, I dreaded the years away at college–and rushed back home when we were done to start our lives (I married my high school sweetheart). I knew, since I was about thirteen, that I wanted to share my love and passion for central Minnesota with anyone who would read my stories-but especially with those who live right in my hometown and can’t see it for themselves. My favorite authors growing up were authors who wrote about their homes (Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Maud Hart Lovelace). They took their passion, laid it on the page, and in a miraculous way, their passion becomes ours. Rawlings did the same thing. That’s what I want to do.

    • Mary Keeley Mary Keeley says:

      I devoured the books those authors wrote too, Gabrielle. I loved learning about their homes and their way of life. You said it very well that their passion was present on every page, just as yours does.

  • Anna Labno says:

    Please find me another Max Perkins. :)

  • A good reminder to remember who we are and why we love to write.

  • Phumuzile Margaret says:

    Mary thanks about Majorie’s block’I was not aware that the repetition of the main characters name as it is done on Marjorie’s post in some paragraghs is important or necessay?Please correct me.

    But Thank you for your help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current day month ye@r *