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Good Things for Maxim Writer Who Waited
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
At a Honolulu Rotary Club meeting four years ago, Kent M. Keith, a vice
president at the local Y.M.C.A., heard some words of advice that changed
A fellow Rotarian said he wanted to open the meeting by reading
inspirational sayings that he said came from Mother Teresa. ``If you are
successful you will win false friends and true enemies,'' the speaker
said. ``Succeed anyway. The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow. Do
It was hardly revolutionary, and some might even call the maxims banal,
but Mr. Keith found them very affecting for personal reasons. After the
meeting he discreetly buttonholed the speaker, J. Kenneth Sanders.
``I actually wrote that,'' Mr. Keith told him.
``He looked at me like, `You poor, delusional megalomaniac,''' Mr. Keith
recalled last week.
But he was not imagining things. This unlikely reunion between a writer
and his own words stands to make Mr. Keith a rich man as the Rip Van
Winkle of inspirational gurus.
Now 53, he had written the aphorisms three decades ago, as a 19- year-old
student at Harvard, in a self-published motivational booklet for high
school student councils. When he returned to Hawaii and forgot about it,
his musings took on a life of their own without him or his name. His
platitudes were passed around the world, attributed to various authors,
including Mother Teresa, Bishop Abel Tendekai Muzorewa of Zimbabwe, the
psychiatrist Karl Menninger, a Milwaukee clergyman named Guy Gurath and a
Cleveland high school wrestling coach, Howard Ferguson.
The same pithy dicta have surfaced on thousands of Web sites, including
those of the cookie mogul Wally Amos, the singer Ted Nugent, the film
studio DreamWorks-SKG and the English Cocker-Spaniel Club of America. In
January the folk singing group the Roches set Mr. Keith's mottoes to
Almost no one credited the words to their true author.
Mr. Keith has finally stepped forward to capitalize on his platitudes'
astonishing appeal. In January, Penguin Putnam agreed to pay an advance
of about $300,000 for the rights to a 144-page book, ``The Paradoxical
Commandments,'' by Mr. Keith, explicating his original 10 theses. It will
be published in May with a heavy national marketing and publicity
campaign designed to turn it into the next ``Who Moved My Cheese?''
Mr. Keith had one other bit of luck. A rival publisher, Warner Books,
pulled back on plans to publish another writer's exploration of Mr.
Keith's axioms, which it believed to be the work of an anonymous sage. An
author of the inspirational best seller ``Chicken Soup for the Soul''
interceded on Mr. Keith's behalf just before the competing book went to
``I am totally amazed by everything,'' Mr. Keith said in a telephone
interview from Honolulu.
Mr. Keith said his ``paradoxical commandments'' grew out of his
experience as class president of Roosevelt High School in Honolulu. His
reflections on his good fortune still sound like the sunny sentiments of
a high school valedictorian. ``It has been an unfolding joy,'' he said.
``And I am sure when the book is out in May I will start hearing from
many more kindred spirits.''
Mr. Keith published his commandments in 1968 as a college student trying
to earn extra money. He had parlayed his high school success into a
part-time job speaking to student government groups. He put his
commandments in booklets sold at the conferences.
``People are illogical, unreasonable and self-centered,'' he wrote.
``Love them anyway. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.''
In a flourish of collegiate vanity, Mr. Keith also registered a copyright
for his words, as he did for about 15 to 20 contemporaneous essays and
poems that he calls forgettable.
After college Mr. Keith deposited the last few copies in his parents'
garage and moved on. ``I was unsuspecting,'' he said. ``Just trying to
live the paradoxical commandments.'' After a Rhodes scholarship, he
practiced law, worked in Hawaii state government, developed a high-tech
office park and became president of a small Honolulu university before
taking his current job as director of communications and development for
Meanwhile, the commandments circulated from hand to hand, usually under
the title ``Anyway.'' The litany became a favorite of commencement
speakers and retiring politicians like the departing mayor of Arlington,
Tex., Richard Greene, who credited it to ``the prime minister of a third
world country trying to help the people there make their lives better.''
But the text's greatest exposure came in 1994 when Lucinda Vardey, a
Canadian author, found a version posted to a wall of Mother Teresa's
orphanage in Calcutta. The words were written in someone else's hand with
spotty English grammar, and they were gone a few days later, Ms. Vardey
recalled last week. But Mother Teresa was a woman of few words, and Ms.
Vardey needed all she could find for her book ``Mother Teresa: A Simple
Path,'' so she included the corrected text with a note about its origin.
Under Mother Teresa's perceived imprimatur, the commandments' popularity
Mr. Keith was also impressed by the Mother Teresa connection. ``That
makes me feel warm all over,'' he said. He says he has written letters to
correct misattributions, but has no plans to file any legal claims.
After his Rotary Club experience, he decided to write a book about his
words and last year sold the rights to a Honolulu publisher, Inner Ocean
Publishing. But Mr. Keith was not the only one who saw the makings of a
book: catchy inspirational tracts can sell millions of copies for years.
Joann Davis, a former executive editor of Warner Books, hired a lawyer to
be sure no one held the copyright to a poem called ``Anyway.'' Then she
wrote her own book built around the 10 sayings and sold the rights to
Warner under the title ``Anyway: The Little Word That Can Change Your
Life.'' It was scheduled for publication next month.
Meanwhile, little Inner Ocean was striking out on its own. It sold rights
to Mr. Keith's book to a dozen foreign publishers for a total of
$250,000, and seeing the strong demand, sold the rights to a big American
publisher, Penguin Putnam, as well.
Susan Petersen Kennedy, Penguin Putnam's president, was delighted. She,
too, was well aware of the ``Anyway'' commandments. She had given up
previous attempts to publish her own book when she could not find an
author for the sayings. ``It is just sort of a buck-up kind of thing that
reminds us what we are doing in this world,'' she said.
But Warner's planned publication would have squelched the demand for Mr.
Keith's book in May. Fortunately for Mr. Keith, Jack Canfield, an author
of ``Chicken Soup for the Soul,'' attended a writers' conference on Maui
in Hawaii in September and learned about Mr. Keith's book. When Warner
sent an advance copy of its book to him for a blurb, he told them to call
Mr. Keith. Warner canceled its plans days before its spring catalog went
to press. (So far, Ms. Davis has kept her advance.)
Mr. Keith, meanwhile, has formulated a new maxim for aspiring authors:
``Whether you get published or not, write anyway.''
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
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