by Jason Sitzes
When I moved to Louisville a few years ago, a place I thought I'd leave within a year, I met a fellow writer
named Bret Witter.
Bret and I had a mutual friend who is a New York City agent. I sat with Bret and his family over wine and dinner
and we talked shop; mostly, we talked persistence. Those few years ago we both had ghostwriting projects making the
rounds in New York. My projects were mostly new, a couple of Bret's projects had found a small
audience. Yet, he expressed a feeling of burn-out; he was looking into day-trading instead of more
ghostwriting projects. I tried to encourage him, talked about faith, like the search for a life partner, writers
are all looking for treasure. But I felt his pain. The life of a freelancer is not easy. A capital investor
and I once compared our jobs to that of a treasure hunter; put your eggs into many baskets and one of those, on
occasion, will be gold.
Before the holidays in late 2008, I walked a Borders store in Sydney with a friend. I saw a book titled
Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. I said to my friend something like, "Man,
another melodramatic animal book that will probably hit the bestseller list. " And it did, it shot to the top
not long after its release. Next time I walked my local Borders here in Louisville, it sat at number three on
the New York Times list. This time I looked at the writer's name. Vicki Myron with Bret Witter. Yes, I was
humbled… and thrilled. Bret found the treasure.
I emailed him and we met for coffee, finally, just a few weeks ago. His agent at Foundry Literary Agency, Peter
McGuigan, did the deal on a road trip, sometimes moving in and out of cell phone range. Bret said the bidding
started what they considered high, in the low six-figures. He knew the book was special, but had no idea by
the time Peter's cell was in full range the offered price by Grand Central Publishing would be in the low seven
figures. The hardcover version sat at the top of the NYT Best Seller list for over eight weeks, a couple of those
weeks at number one.
Most of our conversation, aside from discussing the many Dewey books yet to come, surrounded the idea of life
changing moments. Bret did it because he had persistence, and he trusted his ability. He's writing
other books at the moment, some dear to his interests, but he took the story of a cat and turned into something
that touched millions of readers. (Yes, there is talk of a movie deal.)
Dozens of craft "rules" should be heeded, some we'll cover in the weeks to come, and sometimes it's best for the
story to ignore those "rules." Dozens of books on writing give "rules" and these books are important, necessary,
even if you disagree, because they challenge us. But if you don't believe in your talent, if you don't trust
yourself, if you don't push through, if you can't get inspired by your own story, you will never find your
treasure. I meet many writers who can quote books and great writing teachers and, like a parrot, give every morsel
of information to any willing ear. But their manuscripts are weak because they haven't pushed through,
wrestled with the words. Any idea, I believe, can be turned into a heart-breaking or soul-lifting (and
sometimes both) story. But story with no heart, with little work, will emerge flat.
A hundred people could have written a story about a cat that lived in a library. Only a writer who trusts in
himself, and who trusts in the project though never dreamed he'd write about a cat, will find the treasure hidden
within the story. I'll admit it. I wrote a column about driving through a rainbow, and the fact is
while I thought I'd found the treasure in that rainbow, I hadn't. Not yet. But I trust. We owe it to
ourselves to trust.
It's Kentucky Derby time in Louisville, a place where my stuff lives so I call it home. The Kentucky Derby
is royalty. Two years ago I stood near the paddock area watching the greatest thoroughbreds in the world pass
including America's sweetheart, a brown beauty named Curlin. Curlin didn't win the Derby that year, but he did go
on to win more total purse money than any horse in history. We made eye contact; he slid his tongue out the side of
his mouth at me. Standing behind me, not more than 75 feet above my head, was Queen Elizabeth. I turned and
admired her admiring these animals, she in a pink hat watching Curlin, and the other best of the best trot by,
along with millions around the world. Maybe Curlin was sticking his tongue out at her.
A horse, one jockey, two minutes of racing; a lifetime of preparation. Jockeys describe their relationship with
some of the best horses, a thousand pounds of muscle and flesh running at 40 miles per hour (64 kph), boiling down
to one word: trust. Trust the horse, and the horse will trust you. Without that combination, there can be no
When you stare at that blank page, or when you're reading the fourth draft of a manuscript, and you say to your
coffee, "Who am I to think I can do this?" Trust yourself. Words and prose and poetry written from places we
hide makes us vulnerable. I'm guilty as charged. Walter Anderson, a New Orleans born artist and writer (and a
city I lived in I'm sure you'll read about at some point) wrote, "We're never so vulnerable than when we trust
someone-but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy." And when we don't trust our
writing, our talent, and trust ourselves to do the hard, excruciating work required to flesh every ounce of story
out of our ideas, we fail.
Spend some time today, every day, dreaming your dream, then commit to the hard work, and when trust is the last
thought on your mind, dive in trusting only the idea of trust. There is treasure out there for you to dig up, and
to polish, and to share with the world. Also, put a couple bucks on Pioneer of the Nile. I'm trusting in that
beauty for my worthwhile Derby.
Copyright Jason Sitzes 2009