“Every day, do one thing that scares you.”
My wife is the smart one in our family.
When we were able to start living from my writing, Isabella had the opportunity to fulfill her own lifelong dream, and began work on her doctorate at the University of Oxford. She promised me we would only stay in England for three years. That was in 1992. We are still there.
During our second year at Oxford, I was offered my own dream-come-true, in the form of my first large advance. A word of explanation is due here. An author’s advance is based on what the publisher thinks that particular book will earn in its first year to eighteen months. My earlier books had done well, and my publisher decided that they wanted to up the ante. They said they were going to try and elevate me to ‘front of store’, where the book comes out in hardback and is positioned on the table you see when you first enter a bookstore. This placement has to be purchased by the publishers, but it also has to pass muster with the bookstore’s buyers. They only offer front-of-store placement to books they think are going to hit the bestseller lists.
When I finally descended from my low-altitude orbit, my publishers asked if I had a story in mind that could potentially justify such a big jump. And as a matter of fact, I did. I wanted to write a romance-adventure based in the six months that began on May 22, 337AD.
So. A romance based on dusty events from eighteen centuries ago. The proposal landed on my publishers’ desk with a very dull thud.
Nonetheless, I persisted. On that day, Constantine the Great died. He had converted to Christianity on his death bed, and in that same nuclear-bomb moment had declared Christianity to be the only recognized religion of the entire Roman empire. With one stroke of the royal pen, over a thousand years of Roman temples and dieties and politics were rendered obsolete. Christianity shifted from being an outlaw sect to the focal point of religious and political might. Believers went from the catacombs to the palace literally overnight.
Once the publishers were won over, I approached the head of my wife’s college – Oxford is made up of forty-four colleges, where all students are enrolled – and asked for his help. Up to that point, I had merely been one of the spouses attached to what in England are referred to as ‘mature students’. These are students old enough to know better.
The head of our college thought enough of my plan to grant me a one-year position as Visiting Fellow of the Senior Commons Room. Which is a wonderful title, as it made me a temporary member of the faculty. I had no salary, but I also had no responsibilities. I could go wherever I wanted, attend whatever class interested me, and never had to worry about exams.
Of course, there was the small matter of needing to write a book on a subject I knew basically nothing about. But still.
There are certain moments in my career that remain as indelible beacons. Immense opportunities that utterly transformed who I was, and what I felt I might be capable of becoming on a creative level. What came next was one of these. Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time. I was too terrified.
The head of our college arranged for me to be tutored by Bishop Kallistos-Ware, best known for his global mega-hit The Orthodox Way, and now a Metropolitan in the Orthodox Church. Kallistos, as he is known, was a world reknown scholar in the early Church and late Roman empire. He was also President of the Theology Faculty.
That point needs stressing. The President of the Theology Faculty of the University of Oxford. Fellow of Magdalen College. An international bestselling author. Bishop of the Orthodox Church. My tutor.
Kallistos basically looks like an Orthodox church poster-child. Massively built, well over six feet and two hundred-plus pounds. Long, long white beard. Piercing dark eyes. Black cassock. Huge silver chain holding either an Orthodox-syle crufix or palm-size icon, depending on the occasion. Deep, rolling voice.
He scared me to death.
At my first tutorial, he gave me three books on the early church to read, and another two on Roman politics. He told me to attend a graduate-level class on the economics of the late Roman empire. And report back in a week. As in, finish the books and get back to him in seven days.
Lost. Completely and utterly adrift. Surrounded by a sea of inadequacy.
The class was the worst. Thirty students from around the world, all doing graduate degrees. At Oxford. Everything the professor wrote on the board was either in ancient Greek or Aramaic.
When I went in for my second tutorial, I confessed that I was drowning. I didn’t have what it took. I didn’t know enough. I had to withdraw from the position as Scholar and go it alone. Or at least try to.
Kallistos then revealed his other side, the heart of a true teacher. The caring spirit intent upon lifting others up. See, he had intended for me to be overwhelmed. What he wanted to see was how I responded. He asked me a few questions, then told me he was accepting me as his student. And then he gave me the advice that I am now going to share with you.
First, the job of a novelist is not to know everything about a subject. Nobody is paying me to become an expert. I am getting paid to entertain.
Second, it all starts with asking the right question. That is the first goal of my real research. Arriving at the point where I know what questions must be answered. Not because I find it fascinating. Not because experts in this field consider it vital.
Because the story demands it.
Third, find one answer that fits. That is the stopping point. Not, do I know everything about the issue. Never that. All I need is one answer. Just one. Even if the answer is highly contentious and a dozen other experts disagree. My goal is to find one answer that suits the story I’m telling.
Then turn away. And move on.
Fourth, and I hope you are listening because this is absolutely crucial: Research is never a reason not to write.
DO THIS NOW:
- What is it that you feel you must accomplish before you apply yourself to your next creative project?
- Be absolutely honest about this. Is there some aspect of your work where you feel the eyes of critics or experts or leaders in your creative field are bearing down on you? Write this issue on a note-card.
- Down at the bottom of this card, enscribe these words in bold-face: THIS IS NO EXCUSE.
- In your next creative hour, do this one thing: CREATE.
- Everything else must wait.
Davis Bunn’s next novel MIRAMAR BAY is available now at wherever books are sold. Don’t forget to order your copy today!