Last week, Kameron Hurley wrote a long guest blog on writers and persistence. If the descriptor ‘long’ makes you hesitate to click, be assured that she does that writer trick of being interesting the whole way through.
She makes a good point: Persistence is how it’s done. And by “it’s” I mean “become a professional writer”.
However, there are a few things I want to add, because I don’t think “You have to be persistent” is enough. I think it’s useful to talk about how, as well, and that sometimes persistence is bullshit because the goal is bullshit. So:
1. Persistence is just the pursuit of the goal via managed expectations and the certainty that writing professionally is a thing that can be learned. That’s it. If you can stop yourself from thinking “This book I’m writing is going to win an award/make me rich/get me laid/win the admiration of the right people” that’s half the battle. The other half is recognizing that, even if you fail this time, you can do better next time.
Okay, not everyone can improve. If you’re in a coma, no. If you’re so convinced you’re already a genius that you think every rejection Proves What Fools They Are, no. If you’re incapable of learning that text affects readers in ways that the writer might not intend, no. But for someone who can pick up a manuscript they “finished” last year and think “Look at this paragraph! I’m not still making this mistake, am I?” there’s no reason to expect they can’t make their goals.
Plus, it’s the big goals–that vile four-letter word: hope–that breaks the will to write. Like a weary traveler, writers think their destination is just over this next hill. And the hill is so steep and muddy and exhausting, they force themselves to push on, only to discover that the other side is just more road leading off into the distance.
If you fervently hope this is the book that will win an award or become a bestseller, and it doesn’t? That shit is disheartening as hell.
2. Nothing bad happens to you if you give up.
Sure, you probably won’t finish that book, but if you get more time to spend with your friends, go hiking, maybe volunteer at a food bank? I can’t really see how that’s a bad thing.
The point has to be this: Do you want to write more than you want to do other things? Video games/TV shows/Other time wasters notwithstanding, if creating literature is not really what you want to do, you might as well be doing something else. You’ll be better off. Fuck persistence.
3. I know some people will bridle at the word “literature” but that’s what writers make, even if it’s Bigfoot pron. Maybe it’s not great literature, maybe it’s rote, or trite, or commercial or derivative. Maybe it’s a big steaming pile of goatshit. Who cares?
4. The point is, it’s really really hard to put aside those big expectations, but one of the best ways to do that is to drill your focus on the book. Whenever I start daydreaming about the reception my book might get (basically, whenever I get weird, starry-eyed high hopes) I stop, remind myself that those thoughts are poison, then refocus my attention on the characters, the voice, the plot. Whatever. Not only does this help throttle the strength out of Hope, that miserable enemy of all good things, but it helps keep my energy and effort where it belongs.
5. What’s more, the idea of a “successful writer” (earning enough to forsake all other employment) is a really strange thing. As Ursula Vernon says, pro writers are simultaneously “fetishized and devalued.” As soon as you start finding fans for your work, people encourage you to toss your day job. Then they complain to you in emails that they got a computer virus from a pirate copy of your book and where can they find one that’s safe and free?
The truth is, writing as a day job is completely awesome and completely nerve-wracking. Not everyone wants to spend harrowing hours wondering if they can pay their rent, or tightening their food budget yet again until that check turns up. Add to that the unhappy fact that a great many writers outlive their own careers and you have a pretty stupid career choice.
And, even if you keep the day job, Persisting can take up a helluva lot of your free time.
But let’s say you want to go for it anyway and stick with Persistence:
6. As I mentioned above: big daydreams are poison. If you can be zen about how well the book will do after you finish, that’s great. If you can’t, there are a few tricks that can help distract us from inflated expectations: first, pay attention to how much a mid-list author makes and how many copies they sell. That’s where realistic expectations should be set. Whatever genre you work in, someone out there is sharing their numbers. Check them out.
Second, a trick I use is that I don’t write for a large audience. I pick three people to write for. They become my primary readers. I choose new ones for each book and never tell them, but when it’s time to ask myself how a scene will play for the reader, I don’t have to picture a long line of people in line at B&N. I have specific people in mind: Will she feel cheated by this revelation? Will he like the way this character changes?
Even if I don’t know anything about them except what they post on their blogs (and yeah, some of the primary readers are pretty much strangers to me) I can do the important work of imagining the effect of the story without poisoning myself.
7. Not matter what anyone says about talent, inborn ability, natural aptitude, or whatever, people can teach themselves to write better. I mean, seriously, if there’s a placebo effect for sleep, there’s a way to improve writing, too. Obviously, that subject is too big for this post, but knowing it to be true is the important thing. You don’t have to give up after any one particular failure.
8. But what if you do all these things but still can’t make persistence work?
Hey, for a person struggling with depression, who’s caring for a sick loved one, who is utterly freaked over impending job loss, or who is generally overwhelmed by life, no worries. Writing is secondary to all sorts of other things, like health and family. Don’t be hard on yourself.
If you’d like to be writing but you seem to spend all your time hanging with friends, checking Twitter, watching TV, or shooting zombies on your Xbox, see about about nothing bad happening if you give up that dream of being a writer. It’s kind of a dumb dream and you clearly would rather be doing something else.
9. Oh, what’s that? You really would like to put aside the games and internet and do the persistence thing, but it never seems to happen?
First, put the distractions away. Alternately, take yourself away from your distractions. I write outside my home b/c my family is very disruptive. I also have an app that blocks my internet for a set period of time. Maybe that will work for you or maybe not, but give it a try.
Second, keep in mind that it is much easier to fail in the face of luxury than in adversity. For many of us, adversity spurs the spirit to strive, but luxury gives us excuses to seek pleasure right now. (I used to have a sign in my office cubicle that read “Hard work pays off in the future. Laziness pays off now.” My boss didn’t get it.) Take a hard look at the luxuries in your life–even if it’s something as simple as Bejeweled or Twitter on your phone–and limit them.
Last, friends of mine used to have this game they played every day called “Fresh Ten”. Every day they would write ten new words in the WIP, then post them online. After they did that, they could close the word processor and be done for the day, or they could write a little more.
Maybe even a little more than that. Just having to do ten new words a day gave them an excuse to sit down and start. Not every day was productive (and not every writer works every day) but it’s how we build our habits.
Well, that was longer than I would have liked, but I liked Hurley’s post and wanted to respond. I’ve struggled with persistence, too, and thought it might be helpful to offer a few mental tools that I’ve used to keep going.
Like Hurley, I hung a sign at my desk regarding persistence, but mine was a quote from Calvin Coolidge:
Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.