On Persistence

I’ve written a fiction manuscript. I’m sixty-thousand words into another one. The first is with an agent who, despite impressive connections and a stellar reputation, is yet to field anything for me except rejection. Usually she backs winners, so I hope she hasn’t lost faith in my work. Because despite rejection and no promise of future success, I get up each morning and write. I’m stubborn by nature, blinkered and persistent. And while persistence hasn’t yet delivered me to where I want to be as a writer, I believe it’s the only way to get there.

If you write, you’ll know persistence is not optional. Whether you write essays, novels, stories, scripts or poems, there’s no shortcut. You have to log the hours: write, read, revise. You need to stay in your chair. And you need to do that with your head down, not looking at the finish line (because whatever finish line you see is a mirage) and not thinking about applause (because approval from family, peers or professionals should never be the goal: creating good work is the goal). Block the naysayers, disregard publishing statistics, and leave logic out of the equation. If you let these things into your head you’ll either produce commercially driven work – and as the saying goes, if you try to please everybody you’ll please nobody – or you’ll produce nothing. If you want to create writing of worth you must doggedly put one word in front of the other until you’ve said what you want to say.

For some writers, compulsion might be a better word than persistence. Persistence suggests an act of will, a choice to press on regardless. A version of Winston Churchill’s ‘Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time.’ But some people write because they feel out-of-sorts if they go too long without getting the words out. If you’ve never experienced the cranky, eager compulsion to write, that won’t make sense to you. But if you have felt an almost primitive urge to write, go with it until it subsides. You’ll wash up on the shore feeling spent, dejected or enlivened as the writing dictates. And there will be words on the page. And you can work with them.

American writer Stacey Derasmo wrote a terrific article about the compulsion to write: ‘Though I have certainly doubted my talent and my ability to pull off what I am trying to do, I have never doubted my conviction that the pursuit itself, the vocation, was the path I had to be on. This business of making sentences, images, scenes—it is so constitutive of my being that I hardly know who I would be without it. Writing is like my Siamese twin: freakish, alive, weighty, uncanny. Were we to be separated, I doubt that I could survive it.’

If you struggle with persistence, I’d say this:

There’ll be bad days when you truly can’t write. On those occasions, read. Read a list about famous writers who met with failure before success. (Don’t look at too many lists though or you’ll notice some writers treat numbers with loose abandon, as though they were characters in a drama.) Re-read a good novel to remember why you value writing. Read books about writing. I know that sounds as useful as watching sport rather than exercising, but writing is a skill never perfected. Also, books about writing can lead you back to your own work. Anne Lamott’s famed Bird by Bird offers some of the most achievable and sound advice I’ve come upon. James Wood’s How Fiction Works is indescribably illuminating. Stephen King’s On Writing will shame you out of your slump. And The Believer and Paris Review publish collections of interviews with writers that will assure you none of your problems are unique.

Persist in your own way. Some writers talk about their work. Some don’t because once a story is spoken it can lose its freshness or become too familiar before the real work has even begun. But for other writers, talking about work-in-progress is energising. Some people talk about a project so it’s out in the open and they’re obliged to follow through.

Persist in your own time. If you have a piece of work in you, bring it to life at your own pace. Donna Tartt releases one novel every ten years, and is told by fans, and publicly by Stephen King, to write more quickly. Joyce Carol Oates publishes one book a year, and some critics suggest the sheer mass of her work means nothing can stand out. Both writers continue to produce work in their own way.

Persist no matter what. Neil Gaiman said this in his 2012 Commencement Speech to the University of the Arts: ‘Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong in life and in love and in business and in health and in all the other ways. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art… Make it on the bad days. Make it on the good days, too.’ And once you’re ready to share your work, don’t be too dejected if you can’t find your audience immediately. Your people are out there somewhere. None of us is so special that what we say isn’t shared or understood by someone else in the world. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m your reader. But if you give up now we’ll never know.

The last word on persistence goes to Isaac Asimov, who is possibly the only writer more prolific than Joyce Carol Oates (though she’s still producing). He said: ‘You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.’

This was published on the Wheeler Centre site on 26 May 2014.

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