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Find more Notes from the Field
We’ve all heard the old chestnut: “Oh, you’re a librarian! You must just sit around all day and read books.” Well, library director Mary Potter Kenyon doesn’t just read them, she writes them—although, not while she’s on duty at the library. Kenyon’s newest book, Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage, will be released in April 2014. She recently took the time to talk to us about balancing her two careers.
Tell us a little about yourself and your current position.
Mary: I’m the director of the Winthrop Public Library in Winthrop, Iowa, and I am also an author. My route to librarianship began during my teen years in the 1970s, when I worked summers in a small-town library in Earlville, Iowa. I loved it. Then I went to college, got married, and graduated with a BA in psychology. Once I made the decision in 1988 to stay home with our growing family (we had four children by then), I began doing some freelance writing to help bring in a little income and as a way to utilize my creativity—and maybe as a way to stay sane as my family grew to include eight children.
I returned to working at that same library in Earlville in 2001.When the director was retiring in 2007, she asked me to apply for her job, but my husband, David, was recovering from cancer so I turned down the opportunity. David died in March 2012, leaving me a widow with four children still at home. When the Winthrop library director position came up in 2013, I was intrigued but wasn’t sure I should apply. I’ve been homeschooling for more than 20 years and couldn’t imagine putting my youngest, age 10, in school. I decided to follow the wise advice my husband had always given me: “Just tell the truth.” I went in front of the Library Board and told them the truth: that I would need to be able to have my youngest two daughters with me occasionally. They decided I could make that work, and I began as director in December 2013. It’s a part-time position, with hours that are ideal for my family and my writing schedule.
How does your writing career fit in with your library career?
Mary: For many years, my writing was more like a hobby, something I did occasionally. I started taking my writing more seriously when I was attempting to sell a memoir I’d written during my husband’s cancer treatment in 2006. My writing and speaking endeavors have really taken off since then, and, ironically, all this success in my writing has come after the death of the man who had become “the wind beneath my writing wings.” I’ve signed three book contracts within 12 months! My public speaking has increased exponentially, too, with presentations on the topics of couponing, writing, utilizing your creativity in your everyday life, and finding grace in the face of grief.
My writing and public speaking fit hand-in-hand with my library job because I have done workshops at many other Iowa libraries and have met so many wonderful library directors and staff members in my public speaking. My years as an at-home mom struggling to make ends meet and my homeschooling experience fit this job well, too. I already know the tricks of the frugal trade and have added free subscriptions to several magazines and dozens of thrift-store sale books to our collection. As the mother of eight children, I know what kind of programs and prizes are real incentives to summer reading, and I am looking forward to planning my first summer reading program.
What is happening in your library’s collection at the moment?
Mary: Right now, I’m focusing on the children’s and young adult areas. We’re reorganizing some of the programming and adding some puppets and games to the children’s collection. If we want our children to grow up to be readers, we need to make the library a welcoming place to be. I love seeing toddlers start to explore with the crayons and coloring pages we have out on the tables or watching a youngster pick up a book I just set out with a matching stuffed animal. I’m also increasing the number of new children’s books our library purchases and decreasing the books on CD. Our library already pays to be in a consortium allowing our patrons to download books, so to us it just makes sense to decrease the amount of physical audiobooks.
In addition, I see a dearth of teens and teen books in our library, so I am including this age group in this year’s summer reading program, asking for recommendations from my own teens and those who come in the library. The teen section is another section I want to beef up a bit before summer.
Shifting gears, let’s talk a little more about your writing career.
Mary: As I mentioned previously, I began just by doing some freelance writing. I’ve written more than 400 essays and articles for magazines, newspapers, and anthologies, including 5 Chicken Soup books. I’ve been featured in Poets & Writers magazine, and several of my devotions were included in the Hope in the Mourning Bible (2013), from Zondervan. I have been writing a weekly couponing column for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald for two years. My first book, Homeschooling from Scratch, was published by Gazelle Publications in 1996. I forget to mention that book sometimes when I am talking about my writing because it is so outdated now, and I have grown so much in my writing. Coupon Crazy: The Science, the Savings, and the Stories behind America’s Extreme Obsession, was released by Familius Publishing in July 2013. Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage was released in April of 2014, and my upcoming book, Refined by Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace, with a foreword by New York Times best-selling author Cecil Murphey, will be released by Familius in October 2014.
Tell us more about Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage.
Mary: When David was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2006, I searched libraries and bookstores for books on cancer and the caregiving experience. What I discovered was a plethora of technical and medically oriented books but little on caregiving. So I decided to write a book myself. It failed to sell even after being submitted to 88 agents, so it was stuck in a file drawer until my Coupon Crazy publisher asked if I had another book. He’d just published a book about a man caring for his wife during cancer and wanted one from the perspective of a woman caregiver. When I pulled it out and dusted it off, I realized I had a lot of work ahead of me because I had changed so much as a writer, honing my craft for several years, and at this point, my husband had passed away (but not from cancer, and I knew how important that was). So I rewrote much of it, and the publisher offered me a contract. This book is not really about cancer. It is more about marriage and relationships, and how my marriage improved through this journey though cancer. [Here’s a link to the book trailer for Chemo-Therapist: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=immqjR80BSk]
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Mary: I do a lot of writing classes for beginners who want to get published. I usually applaud the desire to write a book but suggest fledgling writers look at getting smaller pieces published as they work on the large project of a book. You will hear a lot about “platform” as you get into the publishing world, and part of that platform of selling yourself and your books can be those smaller published pieces. So, yes, keep your eye on the long-term goal of getting a book sold, but in the meantime, build up your credibility as a writer by working on those articles or posts.
Being stubborn, honing your craft, and building up a thick skin doesn’t hurt either! Keep in mind that I approached a total of 88 agents in one year, and that book is just now seeing the light of day, nearly six years after I completed the initial draft. It is a much better book for the wait, because I am a much better writer. I didn’t just sit back and wait for it to be published, however. I continued writing and continued submitting.
I also tell writers that the only way to avoid rejection is to never submit anything. It still stings, but I know a rejection might be as simple as an editor having just accepted something similar or what I send being the wrong fit for a certain publisher. I try not to take rejection personally.
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