Learn from the Success of Others
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.
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?
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