Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Endurance Factor

“Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck—but most of all, endurance.”—James Baldwin

I found this quote today while doing some reading on all sorts of different topics, and also in between grading a huge pile of student work. Grading creative writing is something that could be termed an oxymoron perhaps - how can you give originality and pizzazz a grade? Funnily enough, it's not so hard because before you get originality, you have to have strong ideas, structure, characterisation, dialogue that works well, a facility with language, and a good grasp of grammar and punctuation. I guess that's why we teach all that stuff - because from there comes great writing and then ... originality.

I digress. Sort of. Because when we talk about creative writing students, there's a perception that of course they're all talented - why would they be studying writing otherwise? It's true that our students have talent, that germ of something which means when they write, at least a little something happens on the page. But it's what they do with it that makes the difference. Endurance plays a huge part in it. I've seen quite a few very good writers in my classes whom I thought would one day, sooner maybe than later, see their work published. But although their talent might shine, without endurance it fades. I see them a few years on, and they've given up because it got too hard - either to fit it into a busy life, or the rejections were too much to take.

Writing is hard. Good writing is harder. Great writing can take years to develop, to grow, to learn how to do. The myth persists that a great writer is born with the talent, and no doubt for a very occasional person, that's true. But again, it's what happens after that. The road to publication can be long and rocky. Just ask the guy who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces. I saw that mentioned today as an "instant American classic". Yep, it was just a pity that he submitted it over and over and over for years, and finally killed himself. It was his mother who eventually found a publisher, and it became an instant classic. Hmmm.

What makes great writing? I think it is that ability to somehow put words on the page in a way that readers engage with. Just as well we have a wide range of readers, people who love Dan Brown, people who love Annie Proulx. Because words on the page have different effects on different readers. Nevertheless, along with the ability has to come a number of other things. As Baldwin says, discipline is a must. If you can't regularly commit to putting plenty of words on the page and then reworking those words until they sing, you won't get far. A book-length work is a huge, scary undertaking. There'll be plenty to tell you you're mad. Only self-discipline keeps your backside in that chair.

Luck? Yes, even though we hate to admit it. The story idea that somehow magically taps into the zietgist of the time. The editor who absolutely loves Shakespeare and receives an unsolicited manuscript that draws on Hamlet in a new way. The agent you meet just when she's heard of a publisher looking for a book just like yours. But it's not all luck. You make your own luck by being aware of the industry and researching your markets properly.

Love? I guess he means a love of writing. If you love writing for its own 'self', for what it gives you, for the thrill of having written, for how it gives you the licence to do almost anything in words that you dream of - then love helps a lot too. It especially helps when you're getting lots of rejections. But it's endurance that will get you there. Like building a house, you must believe that as along as you keep going, keep adding wood and nails and cement and pipes and a roof, then one day you may well have what you dream of - publication.

And then you must learn to endure all that comes with it - the pressure of each book after that, the reviews, the critics, the long hours at the desk (because you learn that each new book brings its own problems and you will never know it all)... Goodness, I'm starting to depress myself here! But it is endurance, and it is hard - never assume it will be easy because that way lies the road that holds those signs that say things like You're not good enough and I knew you'd fail and How come others can do it and not you?

You have to ignore them because, after all, as a writer you have chosen something that you may do for your whole life. Something that will have moments of ecstasy, moments of deep despair, and a whole lot of days of staring at a blank screen. Endurance doesn't have to be like carrying a heavy sack up a muddy hill in boots that are two sizes too large for you. But it does have to be something you cultivate inside yourself, like a solid warm extra organ that gives you the fortitude you need to keep going.
(And for those of you who know me, can you guess what the house is going to be called when it's finally finished? No, not Emoh Ruo. ENDURANCE.)

1 comment:

Kristi Holl said...

Sherryl, this article says it all! I've taught writing for about 27 years, and you described the situation perfectly. 8-)

Had to smile at your new home's final name--couldn't be more perfect!