Bookbag: “The Writer’s Book of Hope”


Let’s be honest, all writers hope for success, for publication, for riches and fame. But many days we drag ourselves into a chair, open a blank screen and forge our way through doubts and despair that keep us from writing. 

But there is hope for writers in “The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting from Frustration to Publication” by Ralph Keyes.

Keyes is a master writing coach and indefatigable student of the craft who has written a collection of useful and inspiring books about the writing craft. For me, “The Writer’s Book of Hope,” is his most inspiring. My copy is littered with checkmarks signaling the passages and sentences that speak to me in its 190 pages.

Keyes draws on hundreds of real-world examples of writers writing, failing, getting up and trying again and ultimately succeeding. These anecdotes are the basis of hope that every writer can seize upon, especially at those moments when all seems lost.

“Frustration is the natural habitat of writers at every level,” Keyes says. “I’ve felt it… So does anyone who aspires to write.” He describes speaking at writing courses and conferences that sounds familiar, as I’ve done the same.

“Participants worry about lacking talent. Their submissions get rejected. Inspiration wanes. It all seems so futile. Why keep going?”

He reassures these fledgling writers with tales of other hopeless writers. . 

Did you know, he tells them, that Samuel Beckett’s first novel was rejected by forty-two publishers? Or that a dozen agents chose not to represent J. K. Rowling? Beatrix Potter had to self-publish “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” “These are good grounds for hope,” he says, “There are many more.” It’s striking. and comforting. how many successful writers wrestled with hopelessness as they struggled to write despite constant disappointment. Hope, that urgent desire for something good to happen, is the answer, even though it’s often in short supply.

” Hope is the essential ingredient, as crucial to a writer as similes and semicolons,” Keyes says.
“A simple nod of reassurance can keep us going when every nerve ending says, STOP! ENOUGH! I SURRENDER! We can write without a computer, typewriter, desk, pen, or even paper (some excellent writing has been done in prisons on matchbook covers and toilet tissue). The one thing we can’t write without is hope. Hope is to writers as oxygen is to scuba divers. No writer can survive without it.

Besides discipline, what writers, even the greatest, need is encouragement. For Saul Bellow, a Nobel laureate in literature, “every book is his first book,” his longtime agent Harriet Wasserman recalled. “And he is always the first time writer welcoming reinforcement.” 

Keyes describes a conversation with William Zinsser, author of the classic “On Writing Well.”. At work on his latest book, however, Zinsser confronted a manuscript returned by his longtime editor with several pages of suggested revisions. “Zinsser was taken aback,” Keyes recalls. “He searched in vain for any words of reassurance in his editor’s commentary. Did this man like the manuscript? That was the first question Zinsser put to his editor, followed by remonstration for not including any encouraging words in his critique. “Don’t think just because I’ve been doing this so long I don’t need encouragement,” said Zinsser. There’s a lesson there for every editor who may not understand how deeply writers crave a morsel of encouragement along with necessary calls for changes.

What’s the hardest part of being a writer? It’s not getting your commas in the right place, Keyes writes, “but getting your head in the right place. Where help is really needed is in the area of countering anxiety, frustration, and despair.”

That means doing the work and reading the stories of writers like you that are found in abundance in “The Writer’s Book of Hope.”

It’s replete with examples of desperation, not from aspiring writers, but successful ones like mystery writer Sue Grafton, short story master Alice Munro, who writes short stories compared to Anton Chekov despite constant despair, and even the 19th century master Gustave Flaubert, who endured daily torments that nonetheless produced “Madame Bovary.”

In Keyes’s book, hope comes from the inspiring examples he assembles of successful but often hopeless writers who, despite their fears, pushed onward, even if the day’s output was but a sentence, like novelist and essayist Gail Godwin.

“Simply staying there when more than anything else I want to get out of that room,” she says. “It sometimes means going up without hope and without energy and simply acknowledging my barrenness and lighting my incense and turning on my computer. And, at the end of two or three hours, and without hope and without energy, I find that I have indeed written some sentences that wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t gone up to write them.”

A crucial way to locate hope, Keyes says, is to avoid what he calls “discouragers.” These are the teachers and guidance counselors who throw cold water on an aspiring writers’s dreams. They’re the friends and strangers who ask “Yeah, but what do you really do?” or “Don’t quit your day job!” They are often the enviers who wish they had a creative passion. 

Instead, look for what Keyes labels “encouragers.” These include family, teachers, colleagues, mentors, agents, writers groups, editors, readers. Inspiring examples of these relationships abound in “The Writer’s Book of Hope.” “Finding the right encouragers at the right time,” Keyes concludes, “is one of the developing writer’s most important tasks.” Encouragers, whether it’s a spouse, brother or sister who tells you you’re a good writer or that you can finish your story or an editor or agent or gives you the tools to finish a project, these supporters help make you the writer you want to be. 

In five decades as a writer, I have been fortunate to have many encouragers who gave me hope: a supportive spouse, herself a talented writer and editor, siblings, editors and readers. It took time, but I also learned to avoid discouragers. I’m sure there are encouragers in your life. You may have to search for and locate them, often through trial and error. Along with writing and submitting your work despite your doubts, finding people who believe in you are the best ways to locate hope, that elusive ingredient that separates the would-bes from the writers who keep trying. 

“Hang in there,” Keyes urges. “You’d be surprised by how many successful writers were once discouraged ones.” 

You can be one of them. Don’t give up. I have hope in you.

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