Writing is a tough business. It’s not laying bricks, sure, but it does demand the mental toughness to keep hitting the keyboard long after saner folks would have taken up orchid hybridization as an easier hobby. But we keep on keeping on, putting one word after the other.
The late Octavia Butler, a black woman writer in science fiction (for far too long a bastion of white males), commented, "You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say that one of the most valuable traits is persistence."
So – we work, in order to do better work. It’s an apprenticeship, and if we want to become better writers, we create journeyman efforts until we can accomplish a masterwork.
We’ve seen a lot of advice for writers over the years – write every day, write so many words every day, take part in marathons like Nanowrimo. But the best advice I ever received came from the director of the Queens MFA program, Fred Leebron. He said that writing is a process of attrition. “So don’t attrish.”
Tenacity. Doggedness. Stubbornness, maybe. But where do we learn it? According to recent research from Brigham Young University, dads help their adolescent children develop persistence. Researchers followed 325 families over several years. The persistence gained through fathers led to higher engagement in school and lower rates of delinquency. The key? Dads who were “authoritative” but not authoritarian. Children need to feel warmth and love from their father, know there are reasons behind the rules, and have some autonomy. When the going gets tough, and you get going – you might want to thank your supportive Dad.
Another study, through the Mayo Clinic, looked for characteristics among college undergraduates that predicted persistence into Ph.D. and M.D training. The study found five: 1) Curiosity to discover the unknown, 2) Enjoyment of problem solving, 3) A high level of independence, 4) The desire to help others indirectly through research, and 5) A flexible, minimally structured approach to the future. I’d say most of those apply to writers just as well – curiosity, pleasure in the struggle to tame words, independence, and flexibility.
Novelist Jennifer Weiner said, “The difference between people who believe they have books inside of them and those who actually write books is sheer cussed persistence - the ability to make yourself work at your craft, every day - the belief, even in the face of obstacles, that you've got something worth saying.”
So - it’s a matter of hard work, of course, but also a matter of faith – in ourselves, in our work, in what we feel compelled to say. But like any other faith, it faces challenges every day.
wasWhat’s the Point? Five Writers Offer Lifelines for Post-MFA Despair. I’ve offered few lines, but you can read the entire essay at Brevity.
“Isak Dinesen recommended writing ‘a little every day, without hope, without despair.’ I wish I could embody that sentiment. On my worst days, however, I think: .…. We hope for readers. We hope for critical and commercial success, even when we know it’s not good to harbor such thoughts. With that hope must come despair, though, the scarred other side of the artist’s coin. It’s easy to walk into a bookstore, glance across towering shelves of books written by thousands of authors, and think, ? … In my own experience, hope wins out because I am too stubborn (and/or stupid) to quit now. There’s a fire inside that keeps burning. When it’s only embers, I don’t write much, or even at all, and that’s OK. …”
Tenacity is more than a count of pages completed. The other part of persistence is to be able to let the writing do what it must – communicate. If it stays on your computer or in your journal, then it’s not doing its job, of communicating between this head and that one. It’s the tree falling in the forest, making a sound that no one is able to hear. Persistence involves showing it to others – and sending it out.
And that brings rejection. Unquestionably.
At first the rejections sting terribly. We read and re-read them, like hieroglyphs that might offer some additional clues to the editor’s mind. We paper the walls with them. We burn them, or bury them in the garden, or use them for the bird cage or toilet tissue.
But finally we learn that it’s not about us. It’s about the work. This particular poem may be fine, but the editor just accepted another poem about bloodhounds. Or the editor hates any story that begins with dialog. Or the editor has 10 pages to fill and 1000 pages of submissions. Or the editor just had too much garlic at lunch. I’ve been on both sides of this divide, and can tell you the editor suffers anguish, too! Ultimately, the rejection is not about us, personally. It’s about the work. And when we come to understand that, we quit obsessing over the rejections and let them return to being what they are. Pieces of paper with some ink on them. Or these days, an e-mail. Not a judgment on our souls.
A story is told about Robert the Bruce – though it’s also said of royals ranging from King David of the Old Testament to Tamerlane. According to legend, while he was on the run in the 14th Century, Bruce hid in a cave on an island off the coast of Ireland, where he watched as a spider spun a web, trying to make a connection from one area of the cave's roof to another. Each time the spider failed, it began again. Eventually, it succeeded. Bruce was inspired to return to the fight, leading the Scots to victory.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
So here are some tips on keeping on keeping on:
1) Keep your old manuscripts. And keep backups, always. Now that we have “the cloud,” it’s easy and free to upload to Google docs.
2) Keep idea files – if you are working on a novel, stick a milk crate under your desk with file folders by chapter or character that you can toss things in.
3) Don’t get too attached to a desk – a pen – a coffee cup – a particular slant of light. It’s easy to become obsessed with the process and let that get in the way of writing. New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg says, “Learn to write anywhere, at any time, in any conditions, with anything, starting from nowhere.”
4) Move! A walk or an hour in the garden can work wonders for the brain, and liberate new ideas.
5) Turn off the distractions. Facebook. Email. Television. Radio. Even music – personally, I can’t even listen to Bach and write. I get pulled into the music. That may not be the case for you.
6) Treat yourself to a retreat. You don’t have to spend $2,000 to go to a “name” retreat. Go camping with your journal. Do a house swap. Rent a cabin in the mountains.
7) Try something new – if a story is not working, change the point of view. In a poem, move from free to formal verse and back.
8) Try something new part II - give your work new inspiration from travel, a new hobby, a challenging experience.
9) Keep a file of unfinished or “abandoned” projects and visit it occasionally. This poem¸ which won the Nazim Hikmet Prize, started from a failed poem.
Arms stretched wide,
right hand to the dawn,
left toward eventual night,
I face north.
As latitude rises,
forest to taiga,
to tundra, to permanent ice.
Everything will have
a name of cold:
polar bear, arctic fox,
glacier flea, snowy owl.
A compass is known to stray
from true north, lured
by the earth’s magnetic heart.
Now the needle swings
at the approach
of a frost spirit
from those barrens
I’ll have to cross
without a companion,
or a harness of wolf-dogs,
or good boots.
Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about carrying on in the face of the enemy, said: "Never, never, never, never give up." That’s four nevers – and here’s a fifth. Never give up on your writing or yourself.
(This blog was excerpted from a talk to the Writers Group of the Triad annual meeting, Oct. 20.)