We now know the big emotions and states of mind that all writers experience, and have seen that the difficult ones result from a dismal self-image and counterproductive behaviors.
This chapter elaborates on revising our self-image and behaviors so that they can help rather than hinder us. It consists of several self-contained entries, most of which refer to certain negative emotions discussed in Chapter 2. In addition, each entry implicitly addresses all the negative emotions. Whichever way you read them — as specific prescriptions for specific ailments, or as general recommendations for any and all kinds of writer-related maladies — you should feel, after you look through this chapter, stronger and more directed on how to work through the more challenging emotions.
Boundaries — A psychological map in which each individual is a sovereign state with clearly defined borders which no other individual can pillage, invade, conquer, or enslave without permission. When we have boundaries, we set limits on how other people may treat us, limits which have at their core the inviolable principle of self-respect. We respect ourselves so much that we do not do or feel what others pressure us to do or feel unless we want to. We do not give in to our classmates' demands that we wear penny loafers simply because they want us to be part of the crowd; when our spouses browbeat us into watching TV though we'd rather read the paper, we don't crumple up the paper and sigh, "Well, it doesn't matter to me anyway"; when our neighbors nominate us to chair the planning committee despite our well-known aversion to meetings, we don't be nice by saying yes; if we announce to our parents that we're moving out and they respond, "If you move, you'll give me a heart attack!" we don't buckle under. We don't let others' feelings and desires bleed into and overtake ours. We don't confuse our responsibilities with their manipulations. We don't "go along." We choose.
Of course, boundaries go both ways. When we have a clear sense of boundaries, we do not try to boss anyone else around. No more bullying our younger sister to get us the glass of water that we could get ourselves. No more glowering our co-workers into submission. No more pretending we haven't heard our friends say, "I don't want to" and just barreling ahead with what we want. We cease living in any way that demotes others to a position beneath us, and instead give everyone just as much respect as we give ourselves. Boundaries are how we manifest — without coercion or cynicism — the wisdom of the Golden Rule.
In the writing life, boundaries are invaluable. When we first start writing, they enable us to make time: we set up moats across which none can trespass, regardless of how they entice, order, or beg us. We tell them we will be happy to clean our room, make dinner, go to a party, or listen to how their husband forgot their anniversary — but not now; we're going to write now. Boundaries let us say, "Sorry, but I must." Boundaries help us hang up the phone, close the door, sit off in the corner of the cafe. Boundaries give us the permission to make priorities.
After we have written for years, boundaries are useful in other ways. Our writing class implicitly tells us that stories should be written in this kind of style; an editor informs us that novels are worthy only if they're on these kinds of subjects. We become intimidated by what we think might be other people's wisdom. We want to discard our own thoughts — do it right. Put on their literary penny loafers instead of the cowboy boots we prefer, even if we have to slice off our toes to do so. Then, they will like us. We will be one of them.
We are drawn to be subsumed because, for most of us, it is easier to figure out what another (or several others) wants and likes rather than figure out what we ourselves want and like, to feel like part of a stream instead of a single, finding-its-own-way raindrop. It takes concentration and practice to learn our own wants and desires, and few of us are eager to put in the effort. Only when we see the ill effects of being absorbed by others do we see the point in understanding ourselves.
Boundaries give us a sense of solidness from which we can make decisions. We are not as susceptible to being talked into ill-advised behaviors; we persevere with our writing regardless of intrusions or bribes. I screen phone calls during my writing time so I don't accidentally get sucked into an hour-long conversation. Most writers do not talk about what they're writing until they are ready to. I rarely accept social invitations the minute they are offered, and instead get back to the host after I have assessed whether I can afford the time away from my work. Some writers work behind a closed door on which they hang a Do Not Disturb sign, or, if that doesn't establish boundaries, they write in some location away from their house. Many highly productive authors maintain their level of output by, in part, listening politely to people's suggestions about what they should write next (and people are always making such suggestions, from editors to spouses to strangers on the swivel stool at the diner), and then they write what they want to write anyway.
Boundaries, once established, are the best way we have to discover and accomplish what we want. They allow us to arrest the damaging effects of competitiveness, envy, feelings of inferiority, guilt, paranoia, shame, and all other negative emotions triggered by our interactions with other people. Boundaries release us from the influence of others and place us in custody of ourselves. They are the draperies we close on the world so we can dance naked. They are the soundproof doors we shut so we have the freedom to sing. They are the room of our own, our clean and well-lighted place, the privacy to find ourselves in our own ink.
Celebration — Making a big deal out of every success. Success does not come around very often in writing. We may realize this after we've slaved for months to finish a story that still feels off, or after we've received rejections for all our stories. Whatever the stimulus, early in our careers we see that most of our writing time is spent on trying — and growing frustrated, and very little on savoring completion or fame. Celebration is how we acknowledge every single distinction. It is the way we exile those feelings of frustration, which helps us push through frustration when we re-encounter it later, even if our respite lasted only a few hours or days.
When I teach college, I put celebration into the curriculum: on the dates when the major revisions are due (a project which everyone in the class has to turn in, on predetermined dates, three times a semester), I cancel regular class work and throw a party, with coffee and cake and literary games. Triumph happens so rarely, I tell my students, that we must rejoice when it does — and certainly, revising a story by its deadline is a triumph, worthy of cake and parlor games.
Many moments qualify as writer triumphs. Some are obvious: acceptance of our stories by a magazine, notification of our selection by a grants organization, a contract from a film company. Some moments are not as blatant: an author we love, whose last novel prompted us to write a fan letter, sends a warmhearted reply; a reporter who once mentioned our name in a brief item on local writers recognizes us in a store, comes over, and wishes us well; we receive a rejection letter full of handwritten compliments and a signature; we deliver an energetic reading. All are triumphs. All deserve not just recognition, but fanfare.
I usually commemorate the small to mid-sized successes with exultant calls to friends, and then I break out the sparkling cider. When it comes to the big bonanzas — selling a book or an option for a movie — I treat myself to a gift: a pair of glass earrings I had coveted for ages; a week's trip to England; a new computer. Whatever the rites are, I want them to stand out in my memory, to shout, Remember that day? I'm a reminder that you can do it.
That is celebration: a ritual of acknowledgment that it's not all dark, creepy forests with wicked oak trees and flying monkeys — that sometimes, when we work really hard and hold onto our pluck and stay alert and are touched by the hand of good fortune, we can reach the Emerald City, and indulge in magnificent revelry.
Commitment — A promise to ourselves that our writing matters profoundly and that, come what may, we will honor that promise. We know down to the lining of our soul that we are devoted to our writing, that we cleave unto it, that we need it, that we cannot wash it out of our hair, that it's an itching in our heart, that it says yes when everyone else says no, that it shows us light where others see dark, that it makes us think in complex harmony.
So we commit ourselves to it. Yes. I will. And we do not waver, even though the world sometimes seems to want us to.
Commitment isn't necessary in the easy times; when the kisses flow daily, who needs a wedding ring? Commitment is necessary only in times of trouble: laziness is etherizing our will. Our love/hate is listing toward hate. Guilt is tugging us toward inoffensive dullness. Paranoia is shackling our productivity. Shame has us shivering from multiple rejection wounds. Or friends are simply tempting us away.
This is when we need commitment. Without it, we push back from the desk, shrug off the unfinished novel. Who cares. We don't. We were only dating writing anyway. Maybe she's not the girl for us. Besides, she requires too much effort. If we wanted to work so hard, we'd get a job laying bricks, not waste our time fooling with such an elusive and temperamental lover.
Of course, writing is both fooling with a lover and laying bricks. And if we are to avoid that struggle of getting started again, we need to commit to writing during the lover phase. When we're tingling from our attraction to writing, swooning with intoxication, ripping off our self-censors, forgetting our wanting-to-be-liked prophylactics — that is the time to commit. We want it. We want it so bad that we agree to want it as much in the future as we do now. We promise we will.
Having made ourselves this promise at a time of joy, we are more able to stick it out when we hit those stretches of tedium or angst. We remember how good it felt, and we know that if we keep going, we will have those feelings again.
But unlike discipline or a Las Vegas marriage, commitment doesn't happen in a flash. Only when we have revisited the delicious delirium of writing many times over do we realize that we must really want it for good. Writing, we see, gives us a cyclical return of romance. Say yes and we get not a settled marriage, but a string of honeymoons that go on forever.
Discipline — The routine action by which we prove our commitment. Without discipline, no number of vows, wishes, or stories-itching-to-be-written will amount to anything. We can talk all we want, sob about our unfulfilled ambition, sign a pledge that we will get to work. But it's all bluster and nonsense unless we act. And the most effective action is discipline.
When people at parties hear that I'm a writer, they usually respond with, "I always wanted to write but I lack discipline." They speculate on why I have the ability to foil diversion. I must have an abnormal quantity of self-control, they suggest; been raised with a Puritan work ethic; nod off at the first sign of fun; am a stoic; am a masochist. They can hardly believe it when I laugh.
People have the erroneous idea that discipline is something that you have or you don't, like blue eyes or small feet. But discipline is an acquired trait. It is a logical carrying through of a decision; the implementation of a choice. Discipline results from realizing that, when we want something badly enough, the action required to get it is not a burden but a vehicle. And it is up to us to make that vehicle a creaky, leaky jalopy, or a humming, vrooming cruise mobile.
Discipline is commitment to routine. We have routines for many things — brushing our teeth, going to work, watching certain TV shows. All it takes to "get" discipline is to plan a routine and decide to stick to it. Discipline is a single decision. It is not something we select over and over, each day facing a new mountain of hesitations and resistances and temptations. We decide at one important moment that we are going to act, and then every day we renew that decision by acting. That is discipline. If we decide to act and do not, it doesn't mean that we lack discipline; it means that we lack desire. (For suggestions on practical approaches to establishing discipline, see "Finding Time To Write," in Chapter 4.)
Humility — Acceptance that we are never the master but always the student. Humility is not merely the opposite of arrogance; humility is also the compatriot of confidence. Without humility, we sometimes begin a story bloated with ego and pride, thinking, "I've pulled this off before, I can do this better than anyone, this'll be rolling off a log," and then, when we wade deeper into the challenges of these particular characters or narrative, we fume. How could we be so stupid! So mistaken! So conceited! Only when we accept that writing is always a challenge, regardless of our previous successes, can we keep producing.
Humility is awe for the void of the blank page. Awe — not fear. Humble writers don't quake at the task of filling that page; they embrace it — and with reverence, knowing that it has slain many a literary dream. Humble writers admit that maybe they don't know. They see that the longer they write, the more they need to learn. That their ego matters less than each individual story. That the striving never ends. What ends are the excess of bravado that they can pull it off without effort, and the lack of faith that they can't pull it off no matter what. What comes is humility, which they've learned is not just the path away from ego and pride, but is also the path toward faith.
I first met humility in college. I'd survived freshman year with great difficulty but I had survived, and somehow this achievement convinced me that all would be smooth sailing now. Thus, sophomore year, my attitude toward school became one big No problem. Maybe other people needed to spend seven hours in the library, but not I. I was more together than they. I had this down. So full of cockiness was I that I even delayed starting my end-of-the-semester papers. Then finals week slammed into me, and only then, desperate and terrified, did I knuckle down and get to the library. Cockiness, I saw, doesn't get papers written: ego doesn't construct paragraphs, pride doesn't compose coherence. Only hard work does. I later learned that this phenomenon has the misnomer "Sophomore slump," a term that implies laziness. But it wasn't laziness that caused my sophomore slump; it was excessive assurance without labor. Finally, I admitted I needed to work, and since then, I have never suffered in that way again.
Humility keeps us moving forward. It strips away our lies and boasts. It comes with experience, and gives a perspective that never quits. It keeps our eyes down on our pen, critical and focused, instead of gazing with adoration at our mirror.
The Inner Voice — The internal aesthetic trail guide which directs us toward the great. Apprentice writers often question their ability to tell when a piece is done. They ask others, "Do you think it's ready?" They frequently back away from making their own artistic judgments as well, asking others, "Do you like it?" figuring, Others must know more — or be more right — than I. They know they need to develop what Hemingway called the "built-in shock-resistant shit detector," but aren't sure how. Insecurity ricochets inside them, sometimes occasionally, sometimes continuously. They cannot imagine how they will ever know. And all because they have not yet learned that every writer has an inner voice which does our shit detecting, and delivers our declarations of completion — as well as leads each of us away from sounding like anyone else, and ferries us to our unique vision.
One of my most successful stories was pshawed by the writing class I was in at the time. If I'd believed their opinions were more "correct" than mine, I would have tossed the story instead of working on it more and sending it off to a contest — a contest which I won, and which ultimately led to my first book contract. But I believed in the story because (although I didn't know the concept at the time) my inner voice told me it was good, original — in need of revising, but essentially on its way.
I didn't develop the concept of the inner voice until I was crawling through the revision of my novel. Although I had been writing for twenty years, I still couldn't ascertain when I hit or missed. But during that revision, I decided to stop showing my work to other people until I was completely satisfied — and, instead, to read the piece out loud to an audience of me. This would, I guessed, force me to lean entirely on myself, both for figuring out what was wrong and for figuring out how to fix it.
And so, in private, I read aloud over and over and over, concentrating every time on how each word, sentence, paragraph, and section felt to me. After months of this, I realized that an inner voice was speaking back to me. Actually, it wasn't a voice as much as a little squeak — Eeek, it would sound when I reread a certain paragraph, that doesn't feel quite right. Or Yuck, too much description. At first, the squeak was subtle; I'd tell myself I wasn't hearing anything, and continue on. By the tenth time I reread the piece, the squeak would be a shout; by the hundredth, a military command. Finally I'd get so sick of hearing it that I'd fix the damn paragraph. Then I'd go back to rereading and wrestle with new squeaks. Again and again.
In time, I saw that I was cultivating my inner voice. The more I listened to it — the gulps that I hadn't pulled off that metaphor, the pings that the humor wasn't truly funny, the No, that's not its when I tried certain narrative developments — and the more rapidly I acted on all those gulps, pings, and No, that's not its, layer after revising layer, the clearer the voice grew inside me. Eventually, this led not only to me knowing when the piece was done, but to finding and burrowing into a new vision, something unlike anything I'd read (or certainly written) before. Which led to me developing confidence.
I am forever watching people train themselves to gag their inner voices. They prepare a story for their writing class. Before turning it in, I ask, "How do you feel about it?" They say, "Well, I'm not sure about the ending." I say, "Maybe you should keep working until you're sure." "Nah," they say, "I'm going to take it into class and see what they think." Which, in practice, means that if class finds the ending good enough, the writer trains himself to disregard his inner voice. So he never pushes the piece to a new height, never finds a vision beyond the one the class already sees. The same problem arises if the class thinks the ending needs work and offers a specific solution; instead of working harder on her unique approach, the writer reorients the piece as the class wants, mulching the very traits she could otherwise let blossom into a singular vision.
Just because someone likes a line in our stories doesn't mean we should keep it. And if we feel moved to give a writer ideas for revision, we should give two or three at least, so we never forget that solutions are infinite, limited only by the adventurousness of the writer's inner voice.
An apprentice writer needs to be careful, however, not to mistake laziness for the inner voice. The latter comes through a great deal of hard work; if a class says a piece doesn't feel right, a writer will just thwart his own progress if he shrugs, "My inner voice told me to do it that way, and if you don't think it works, tough noogies." If others don't think a piece works, it's possible (and, if we haven't put in months of concentrated effort, quite likely) that it needs more work, more deliberation — more attention paid to the inner voice. The inner voice is never an excuse. It is only a guide.
But what a guide. If we listen to it, we can grow in every way. No more reliance on the input of others to get a sense of self. No more seeking advice to move forward. Begone cursed insecurity! At long last we are self-reliant, able to trust ourselves, and intimate with our own standards and tastes. (The inner voice is discussed throughout this book. See especially, "Hearing Your Inner Voice," and "Handling Criticism," both in Chapter 7.)
Patience — Tolerance for time. With patience, we work until our inner voice says a piece is complete — not until we (read: our ego) want it to be complete. No longer are we indentured to the alarm clock in our heads that rings, You're spending too long! Finish it NOW! Patience has tossed that alarm clock out the window, and in its place wound up a new one which rings only when our work is ready.
Most apprentice writers believe that effort equals product — that six days of work (or two months, or whatever arbitrary time frame we select) equals a final story. When the reality of long gestation fails to meet their fantasy, they get frustrated to the point of exasperation and laziness, and experience a whole host of negative emotions: feelings of failure, feelings of inferiority, shame. Experienced writers, however, know that effort does not equal a final story as much as it equals getting closer to a final story. They know that while six days of work may generate a completed, ready-to-submit manuscript, it's more likely that six days of work will equal a draft — maybe a great draft, but still a draft. They know they must consciously impose an attitude of patience upon themselves, so that when they feel that familiar surge of Finish it NOW!, they can counteract it by telling themselves (out loud and repeatedly, if necessary), What's the hurry? Relax. Take all the time you need.
With patience, a solution that eludes us one day will come the next — and then the next day, an even better solution will come. This is what I found as I wrote my novel, which I thought of as clawing through tunnels in a cave: although I kept inching through twisting shafts which culminated in dead-ends, over and over I would discover, just as I reached the impasse, some small chink to my side that was worthy of a peek. I would glance in, behold new colors, discover new echoes, and then I'd whip out my pickaxe and start chipping out this new route. Soon I saw that I could not dig a clear plot — and certainly never reach my novel's climax — without thousands and thousands of dead-end attempts.
When writers are trying to produce a story that won't work, many of them end up wailing, "What's wrong with me? What don't I have? I know: it's talent. I just don't have any talent." Almost always the reply could be, "You've got talent. What you lack is patience." But that would be too easy; they wouldn't be able to believe it. "No, I should be better by now," they'd retort, "I should!" Oh yeah? And Elvis should have come right after Bach, the Wright Brothers should have gone immediately from pacifiers to propellers, and the Roman empire should have sprung up the day after the dinosaurs died.
Evolution is not instantaneous. To be a writer is to be constantly evolving. If anything "should" happen fast, it is not getting the writing done, but accepting that writing takes time.
Physical Exercise — Sustained exertion of our bodies. Most of us spend our days on our butts, our bodies no more than fleshy sacks that contain our minds; we fuel them just enough to keep going, and recoil at the thought of lavishing them with any attention that is non-sexual. We know this inactivity is at the expense of our figure, but we have our priorities. And since all we need are our hands and brain, why bother with anything that won't get our books written?
Physical exercise, though, does get books written. Forget our figure. Regular physical exercise gives us a structured and reliable path to reverie, and reverie, when allowed to persist for thirty to ninety minutes, can give us solutions to many previously unsolvable literary problems.
This works most effectively with exercise that is aerobic and primarily solitary: walking, running, swimming, biking, even dancing at home. When we are breathing at an increased rate, and our endorphins are applauding, we cannot help but make new mental associations. Aha! We are treating the character of the boss the way we treated our mothers! We must rip apart our linear structure and restructure like a symphony! We see the perfect title on the billboard before us!
Thus, as exercise loosens our bodies up, it also nudges us in the direction of contemplativeness and nimble-mindedness.
But exercise seems too basic a tool. Surely, we tell ourselves, sneakers mildewing in the corner, if we need a tool at all it should be something more dramatic — more literary — than a morning constitutional. Like alcohol. Or cigarettes, especially arcane brands, maybe clipped into a slender black holder. Or parties, where we can one-up the witticisms of our fellow artists. Or we need a muse, a darling little genius who will descend into our dreams and whisper sweet bon mots into our straining and receptive ears. Look at Hemingway. Faulkner. They didn't have to join a gym or even stroll around the block. So why should we?
Because it works. And because exercise will keep us living — and hence writing — longer.
Risk/Fun — Daring to step beyond convention — and to do so with excitement. When we begin writing, we usually believe in myths perpetuated by the media: that writers are somber intellectuals who unanimously agree that only certain subjects and styles are worthy, who develop question mark posture while curled over manuscripts in an attic, whose trousers have holes because new pants cost too much, who announce that writing is work. Hard work. A gift. The supreme sacrifice.
So we tell ourselves that we too must develop brow creases, and wince when we read stories that aren't subtle, or experimental, or set in New York, or whatever the current preferences appear to be. We must work within these stipulations, and go no further. We must restrict what we write, how we write, and how we feel about writing. If we have other thoughts, we must tourniquet them away from ourselves. They are not right. They are not honorable. Clip away all those ringlets of inappropriate ideas. Amputate all those high kicks of inappropriate style. Smother that cheer. Writing is not cheer; it is serious business. Do not laugh. Do not revel. Get stern. Clear your throat a lot. Skydive only in your dreams. Then, we can mummify ourselves into the shape of a writer, and then, maybe eventually, the world will come to believe that we are.
But maybe it won't. And if all that self-limitation doesn't add up to the recognition we crave, we'll end up spending our lives being someone we are not.
What if, however, we decide to forget the myth? What if we let ourselves enjoy writing as much as we enjoy a double scoop of ice cream with fudge chunks and jimmies, or a day reading a bestseller at the beach? What if we defy the stipulations that we think are out there, and simply do what we want? And be who we are? What if, instead of carving ourselves up into a facsimile of someone else, we buff ourselves up so we're simply more we?
We'll have a better time. We'll stop feeling so emotionally constipated. Maybe we'll even write something unique, be the maverick who other people then fashion into myth.
A friend of mine once met Margaret Mead. My friend was ten, Mead in her eighties. The anthropologist-writer had just given a lecture at the local university, and my friend's professor father had invited Mead to the family farm for dinner. "What was she like?" I asked, imagining a walking stick, black cape, solemn pronouncements, an air of knowledge. And my friend replied, "She threw off her shoes and ran out into the wildflowers, giggling and jumping in the mud. She was freer and happier than any adult I'd ever seen."
By giving ourselves the possibilities of taking risks and having fun, we make the journey of writing inviting. And that, in turn, helps us commit, and embrace discipline, and lock into our inner voice, and delight in our tenacity. Risk/fun pries our writing away from the cobwebs and shadows and sets it out in the sun by the pond.
Tenacity — Hanging in there, no matter what. We take many blows as writers. Our story gets rejected by editors. Our novel gets broad-sided by reviewers. Interviewers ignore us. We tell ourselves there is no hope — we'll never get published or, if we're published, we'll never get recognition — that somehow our name will forever be written in invisible ink. It is a curse put on our family in the old country, bad karma we earned by jilting a pal in second grade, just another indication of our cosmic role as Loser. We are wasting our time. We are utter failures. People are laughing at us.
These are hard thoughts to resist, especially if they resemble thoughts that assailed us at other times in our lives. Perhaps when we were younger, we were repeatedly chosen last for the kickball team, or we saw the tenth grader we coveted making goo-goo eyes at someone else, or we raced home with a 98% on our arithmetic quiz and got scolded for the single misplaced decimal point in Question number 3. On the other hand, perhaps we had few external troubles, but suffered with moodiness, or moments of melancholy. Either way, many of us spent at least some part of our earlier years asking ourselves if we would ever amount to anything. Sometimes we felt certain we would. Other times we insisted to ourselves that we wouldn't. But when those old thoughts return — the same ones we had in the school corridor at fourteen — their familiarity makes them all the harder to dismiss, regardless of whether their logic is fallacious. It's like an old pop tune we never cared for: if we hear even a snippet of the chorus on the radio, we may reflexively switch the station with a quick Yech, yet over the next few days find ourselves compelled to play the whole insipid song repeatedly in our heads — as well as recall what we were doing and feeling when it was popular.
Some phenomena create thought grooves in our minds which return us to memories and previous feelings. Music is one. Smell, as Proust reminds us, is one. And thoughts are another.
When times get rough in our writing careers, and we begin thinking negative thoughts about ourselves and the world — refracting our self-image from an okay kind of person to a miserable failed bum, we can quit writing or we can persevere. Quitting is simple: then all we have to live with is our bitterness toward the world and disappointment in ourselves and grief at the years we wasted. These seem minor prices to pay when we're in the throes of pessimism. But quitting also means accepting the death of possibility, Pandora slamming the lid just before Hope jumps out. In other words, quitting means committing — to a lousy view of life.
Tenacity, though, means allowing ourselves to stay open. We may still think it likely that we won't get published or noticed by the literary world, but we continue with our work, keeping open a sliver of possibility that we might be wrong. We do this because we don't truly believe that the others who reject or malign us are right. We are right. We are good writers, and if we keep going, and improving, someday the world might see that.
Tenacity has always been a primary theme in the lives of successful writers: some historians believe that Plato rewrote the first sentence of The Republic fifty times; Virgil needed ten years to write the Aeneid; Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, which itself required five years of work, was not even begun until Flaubert had written, and discarded, two other novels; James Joyce's Ulysses took eight years to write, and countless rejections to get published; Ernest Hemingway rewrote the final page of A Farewell to Arms almost forty times; as Ted Solotaroff says in his essay "Writing In The Cold: The First Ten Years," Bobbie Ann Mason submitted twenty stories to The New Yorker before one was accepted; Solotaroff adds that Raymond Carver wrote for almost ten years before his first story appeared in print, then persevered another seven before publishing his first book; Harold Brodkey's first novel, Runaway Soul, took thirty-one years of revision between its 1960 book contract and its 1991 publication.
These are just a few of the better-known examples, but every author, even the most obscure, has his or her own stories of tenacity.
Tenacity is a bumpy road, not always easy to find and sometimes easy to lose. Supportive friends and spouses are vital to tenacity, people who can methodically talk us through our despondency and get us back to realizing that we are happier when we write — that writing is for writing, not glory. As soon as we feel like quitting, we need to pick up the phone, talk about our feelings, remember why we write. Then, we need to write. Immediately. With abandon. Maybe we should even write something that the rejecters/ignorers will really hate. Alchemize our anger into passion.
Recently I attended my first horse show. The highlight was a jumping event, during which young equestrians and their stallions sailed through a track of twenty or so wooden gates. Their skill was so mesmerizing, I never considered that any might fail until, halfway through the competition, one rider tumbled to the ground. I thought that meant curtains for her — her fall had earned her so many penalty points that she was clearly out of the running, and would no doubt slink back to the stables without delay. Yet the phenomenon that has developed into one of our most oft-used metaphors is, apparently, handled with great dignity in the ring; following custom, the rider remounted and continued the course, instantly confronting her fears and earning the audience's respect. Although she was out of the running, she became visibly more confident, and we applauded her tenacity after she'd jumped her last gate, finishing the course just like everyone else.
Don't delay. When we feel we are going to lose, we must keep on. We are not in a contest for fame nearly as much as we are in a test of our character.
Writing Friends — Buddies who care about writing — and us. Whether they are actual scribes or simply appreciators of good writing, writing friends help us face all adversities: the story that won't work, the novel that won't sell, the newspaper profile that caricatures us. And, of course, they understand that peculiar form of tree-falling-in-the-woods loneliness with which all writers are familiar. Writing friends also help us rejoice in our successes, and show us other successes to emulate. They are our companions through thick and thin, the light in our night and the hurray in our day. They give us camaraderie, empathy, someone to call when we get news. They want us to win. And with them around, we feel a little more certain that we will win.
It is simple to find writing friends. They're everywhere, from the co-worker who loves books to the fellow student whose stories we admire. Our friend-radar turns on when someone who asks about our writing truly relishes our detailed answer, maybe even offering insights. But we know we've zeroed in on a great prospect if they ask to read our work — and then do so promptly, honestly, respectfully; and, if they are writers, they also show their own work to us, and listen closely to our comments.
Some people who are compassionate and active in ordinary friendships, however, cannot sustain such qualities when it comes to being a writing friend. They can be true, faithful buddies and confidants, but when it comes to being a writing friend, their envy may encroach, or their feelings of superiority, or their fear of their own, or others', neediness. Or perhaps we find that we give much more encouragement than we get back. Or maybe their warmth retreats in the face of their — or our — success. They neglect to say if they read our story, leaving us to tremble over whether they never picked it up or burned it in disgust. When these things occur, it is best to let those friends go, at least for a while.
Fair-weather writing friends scare us. But we must take those losses in stride, and not let them keep us from trusting. If my writing friends and I ever feel envy toward each other, we discuss it, so we can work on those feelings as a team, both learning from the experience. We see each other as mutual helpers, sharing both our trepidations and exhilarations. Our faith in each other never flags, regardless of who is doing well.
I treasure these friends, and let them know it. Whenever I feel a wave of love toward them, I leave a phone message or write a letter saying how much I value them. I send congratulations cards. I throw parties. My friends mean as much to me as my passion for writing. Indeed, they are integral to my writing. Without these friends, I would still write, but I wouldn't be as happy about it. And how deeply can anything — even writing — satisfy if it doesn't trigger the pleasure of a shared and genuine smile?Previous chapter Next chapter Table of contents