As most of you know, I started writing a book about persistence a couple of years ago; well, really, I started writing the journal entries that would become the blog posts that would inspire the book I would write about persistence at a time when I most needed to be reminded about staying persistent, myself.
And now, some three years later, after I climbed up and out of the despair and dark of what I feared was the end of my career and my writing practice back into a place of thriving, I still have cause on a regular basis to turn to this book I wrote when I need a reminder to persist. I wonder if it wasn’t my way of holding myself accountable—I wrote a book on persistence, thus I must persist; I have no excuse.
I think we’ve lost the meaning of work in this culture; we’ve come to see it as a bad thing, as slogging, laboring painfully toward something rather than applying oneself willingly to a task
And since the book entered the world of other people’s hands this past April, I’ve been reassured by how many of you need the message to keep at it. Daily I hear from readers who say they needed the reminder that it is okay, necessary, even, to keep after the craft you love, the skill you’re good at, the expression that makes you feel alive and connected. To realize that it’s a worthy enterprise; to stand up to people who don’t take you seriously and claim your writing as valuable. I met a woman at the Writer’s Digest conference, 60 years old, who came to me in tears with gratitude for the reminder that she could and would persist in her writing.
When I sold my first book, Make a Scene, to Writer’s Digest in 2005 (it wasn’t published until 2007), a friend asked: “Why you?” She didn’t mean to offend, she was genuinely curious, and rightfully so, given what we know about the high stakes of publishing: Why you, who has no known name, why did you get a book deal?
Our bodies and minds are made to work, to stretch and flex and expand up against the edges of our limits
Well, I did have a track record as a reliable freelance writer who turned in my content clean and on time, and I had many referrals as an editor, but it’s true, I had published no other books. But still, the only answer is that I was so persistent in my idea; I just believed I had a great idea and was hellbent to prove it to these editors. And writing the book proposal wasn’t easy—it didn’t just magically unfold—but the work was worth it. Every time, in fact, I work harder than before, take on something just a little bit bigger, or further out of my comfort zone, the writing itself transforms. I change, too.
Related to these topics, this week I came across this wonderful video interview done by The Atlantic with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose new book Between the World and Me is next up on my reading list. He talks about how he was looking for a breakthrough as a writer, which didn’t come until he had to work especially hard on a story for The Atlantic. “With repeated practice, you become something you had no idea you could be,” he says. He also goes on to say something I often repeat, “Writing is an act of courage.” And he concludes with: “Perseverence…I think it’s the key to writing.”
I think we’ve lost the meaning of work in this culture; we’ve come to see it as a bad thing, as slogging, laboring painfully toward something rather than applying oneself willingly to a task or project, giving it our energy and being excited, proud, motivated.
To me, this loss of understanding of what work really is, and how it helps us persist, is a result of becoming disassociated from the pleasure inherent in making something. Most writers I know love language, story, character—even if they struggle with how to execute it. But we are continually sold the message in American culture that what we want should come to us easily, dropped in our laps. The narrative of American Success suggests that all efforts should lead to instant celebrity or fortune, which is an illogical reality.
Our bodies and minds are made to work, to stretch and flex and expand up against the edges of our limits. Newness, innovation, fresh ideas come from a rightful kind of hard work. Brains that don’t keep learning are more prone to dementia. Bodies that don’t stay in motion are prone to injury and illness.
But since we all have these negative connotations of work, I choose instead to use the word practice (and oh how I love this hashtag I see around #continuouspractice). I like to make the joke when I’m teaching a workshop, “How many of you know anyone with a yoga practice?” People nod and smile. “And how many yogis do you know who say things like, “I’ve gotta get my quota of poses in today,” or “This next pose is going to make me famous?” Most people practice yoga because it feels good, is great for their health, and is just a part of their lives. Some days yoga, like writing, is harder than others, too. But just because you didn’t go to class one day, or one week, doesn’t mean you no longer practice yoga.
To me, this loss of understanding of what work really is, and how it helps us persist, is a result of becoming disassociated from the pleasure inherent in making something.
It’s not much different in a writing practice; everything builds toward the larger goal, but not everything has to have a product to show for it. Some days, writing practice is simply stream of consciousness journaling; other days, writing practice means careful, painstaking revision. Some days your writing shimmers with genius; other days it flops onto the page. Some days your writing practice is reading poetry aloud, or taking in life experience, or attending a literary reading. Other days, it’s reading over your own work. All of it counts. None of it is wasted.
The more you can train yourself to do pleasurable work, and to count all of it in the larger depth of your writing practice, the easier it will be to persist.