There's a saying we've all heard that extolls the virtue of patience, 'good things come to those who wait,' but that's not precisely true is it? I mean patience is important, but patience implies an act of waiting, a passive approach, a course of action where we sit on the couch with our feet up waiting for these so-called 'good things' to arrive by courier at the front door. I think a more accurate sentiment would be good things come to those who persevere.
Perseverance conjures up a different feeling. It's not passive. It's the image of getting up off the couch, doing a bunch of push-ups and then going out, club in hand, to hunt down all the 'good things' despite the fact that we've failed to bring any home in our last fifty attempts. To persevere is to be doggedly persistent despite all the obstacles that stand in our way.
Writers must have many qualities, imagination, self-awareness, ego-mania, borderline schizophrenia, the ability to grow excellent beards (even if you're a woman), but chief among a writer's qualities must be that of perseverance, the determination to continue slamming up against a wall until those bricks start to crack, and here are the five reasons why I believe this to be so important:
1. You've got to finish things
Dorothy Parker once said, "I hate writing, I love having written." And boy was she right. Although I can hear people protesting that statement already:
"But writers should love to write. Why would you be a writer if you don't love it? Every time I write I find escape from the world. I only write for myself."
Well voices in my head (borderline schizophrenia), the only people who say those things are people who have never attempted to write a 90,000 word novel because believe me, it's sometimes like pulling teeth and then continuing to pull more even when you've already emptied your mouth. Incidentally it's my hypothesis that it's these people who don't dig for the deeper meaning in their writing, don't polish their thoughts, the people about whom Dorothy Parker was likely thinking when she also said this, "There's a hell of a difference between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply callisthenics with words." But my thoughts on digging deeper in our writing, of pulling teeth and polishing them is perhaps a topic for another time.
You'll never be a writer until you finish things. Short story, novel, poem, whatever it is, if you don't finish it then it will never be read, and in the end the act of writing is not complete until the work is experienced. Writing is meant to communicate, be it story or letter or sales report, the act of someone else reading your words is ultimately what gives them life and meaning. Reaching this end state is the first time you'll need perseverance.
Personally, I fundamentally disagree with the existence of writer's block, but I know the wall when I hit it, when the words or ideas don't come easily. It is at these times when it becomes all too easy to quit, to put this work down and start on that other burning idea you have. You need the determination to keep going, to push through until the end - focus on this more than any other trait and the rest will follow.
2. You've got to edit things
A bit like pineapple on pizza, some people love editing and some people loathe it. There seems to be a spectrum here, at one end there's the writers who enjoy writing on the fresh page but aren't as keen on the polishing, and at the other there are those who agonise and bleed to get the first-draft out but then rejoice when the red pen comes out. Regardless of where you fall the fact is writing is rewriting. So when it comes time to murder your darlings you better wield that knife with perseverance.
I find the risk in the editing phase of the process is almost the opposite of that in the writing phase. Instead of struggling to get it finished writers can be too hasty to call it done. You've completed the first-draft of a novel right? Whether it's your first or twenty-first, it's done, you're spent, you've got no teeth left, you just want it to be read. It's time to send it out to publishers and wait, patiently, on the courier with your million dollar advance cheque. Well hold up. You know you've got to edit that manuscript don't you? 'Cause right now it sucks.
If you're one of the writers who finds editing a struggle then now is the time to flex your perseverance muscle (that sounds kind of gross). Slow yourself down and edit that manuscript, polish it up, then do it again. Stop yourself sending it off so you can edit it again. Put it aside and leave it for a few weeks and then guess what? Rewrite it again.
Perseverance at the editing stage means getting your manuscript to be the best it possibly can be before it leaves you, even when you're sick of the sight of it.
"I love my rejection slips. They show me I try." - Sylvia Plath
If there's one time you need perseverance it's after rejection, face-slapping, I-don't-want-to-go-on-a-date-with-you, you-don't-get-the-job type of rejection. It will happen, and it will happen a lot.
Once you're through with writing and editing it's time to send your masterpiece out. You send it to an agent or publisher, you cross your fingers and wait. You wait. You wait and wait and wait. You're still waiting and then, with the ding of your email inbox, you get a thanks but no thanks and your soul is wrenched usunder.
Here's where I think you need a certain type of perseverance because there's two ways to react to that news. The first is to hit the delete button, mumble about them not knowing a good manuscript if it jumped up and karate kicked them in the teeth, and send it out to someone else. Then there's the second way you can react, you can see if they've given you any feedback, and if they haven't you can ask for it. Then you can take that feedback and see if you think it could make your work better. I think this second approach is the most important way an author can take rejection. Maybe after one or two rejections it's true that you just haven't found the right editor yet, maybe even after four or five, but as they continue to roll in you need to think that maybe you're getting rejections because your manuscript isn't good enough yet. This is where real perseverance is necessary, the perseverance to continue to improve, to take your rejections as opportunities to learn.
This is why I don't think it's a good idea for authors to jump straight into self-publishing their first novel. Often self-publishing smacks of an author's inability to persevere. They scream and yell about their disdain for the 'gatekeepers' of publishing and that the world has changed and authors should rise up against these robotic overlords. What they're really saying is they're not willing to stick it out beyond the third or fourth knock back.
4. Because practise isn't just for musicians
Which leads nicely into this, practise.
Let's say you decide you're going to be a musician, maybe the lead guitarist in a band, you discover it's what you truly love, do you:
a) Practise everyday until your fingers bleed, continue this practise for years and years until you become a master of the guitar, or
b) Buy a guitar, spend a few months learning to strum, start a band and go around asking bars to let you play there and then lamenting them as 'gatekeepers' when they say no.
I think you'd choose door a. So why then do a large number of people insist on pursuing writing by heading through door b? Perhaps it's a side-effect of our modern culture of instant gratification. I've spoken about the willpower to delay gratification in an earlier blog post. People want everything now, writers want to be published now. Hell, I certainly know I'm guilty of it. I've become impatient at times, unwilling to bide my time and continue through the struggles of learning the craft. Each time the thought that focuses me back on improving and knowing I must persevere with my practise is that I want everything people read that has my name on it to be the best it can be and I know I'll only get there through practise.
It's a commonly stated rule of thumb that it takes 10,000 hours of practise to master a skill, if that doesn't need perseverance I don't know what does.
5. It takes time to be an overnight success
Maybe you're the next Hemingway, Dickens, Vonnegut or Rowling, but even if you are it's going to take time for you to breakthrough. People like to quote how many times Harry Potter was rejected, how many times The Beatles were passed over, how Michael Jordan didn't make his high school basketball team. These things give us hope that we too can achieve greatness despite our setbacks. The key ingredient of course is the p word, no not pizza, though it helps with the crippling rejection, perseverance. Remember that through all those rejections J.K. Rowling didn't quit, she continued refining her manuscript and sending it out, The Beatles certainly didn't stop rehearsing and MJ spent every night shooting hops in his backyard.
When your book is suddenly number one on the New York Times Bestseller list and people are heralding you as an overnight success they don't seem to mention the four novels you'd already written, the two years of rewriting, the two years of trying to get the book sold and then all the editing and promoting you had to do. That's a lot of work for one night.
Perseverance is the key to every stage of your writing. It will make your writing better, it will make your chances of having success better, it may even make you a better person. At the end of the day perseverance is the trait that separates writers from professional writers.
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