When my eldest son was about six or seven months old, he had a milk bottle toy. You’ve seen them—a plastic bottle with colored plastic balls that go inside. The idea is simply to put the balls in the mouth of the bottle.
One afternoon, Ian sat on the floor of our apartment, playing with the bottle. He wasn’t sitting up perfectly yet, so he was a little wobbly, but that bottle had his complete, undivided attention. He held a ball in one hand and I held the bottle still. He wobbled, lifted his arm, aimed for that opening—and missed. Tried again. And again. Over and over and over. When we started playing the game that day, I hadn’t yet discovered a critical part of his personality was tenacity. It never occurred to me that a baby wouldn’t give up eventually.
We sat there for a long time. Over and over. And over and over. But that child did not give, not one inch, no matter how many times he failed. Or fell over. He would lie on the floor, furious, then roll over and grab for a ball, and I would sit him up, get him stable, hold the milk bottle. He didn’t want my help, either, thank you. He knew exactly what he was doing, it was just that his understanding of the task outstripped his physical capacity to achieve it.
Eventually, he actually did get a ball into the mouth of the bottle. He looked at me, startled, cheered, and of course, I praised him to the ceilings. And Ian, being Ian, reveled in his success for exactly 3.5 seconds, then turned and looked for another ball.
As writers, that kind of persistence is the most important quality we own. Persistence is far more important than talent or native ability. Showing up, day after day, even though there might be rejections or bad reviews or really crappy writing (I know what I should do, but I can’t seem to actually accomplish it), keeping focus on whatever the next task at hand is, shutting everything else out. Trying again, and again, and again.
Ray Bradbury says you have to write a million words before your work is publishable. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier puts forth the idea that anyone who succeeds has put in ten thousand hours of work before they actually make a breakthrough (as in selling a novel). If you divide those hours down, an hour a day equals about 27 ½ years.
Don’t let that scare you. Most of us work at writing a long time before we know we’re actually doing it, writing journals and character sketches and school papers before we realize we want to do it professionally, so don’t be daunted by those figures. All writing counts toward the million words or ten thousand hours. All those letters, all the journaling. Not sure about Twittering and Facebooking, but a good blog counts, definitely.
Still, that’s a lot of persistence. It doesn’t stop there, with the writing and selling of a first novel, either. Once you navigate the Land of Endless Rejection and find your way into the Maybe Orchard then cross the River of Publication, you still have another book to write. And another. Each is like a new child, asking something slightly different, requiring a slightly different set of writing muscles, maybe some you haven’t used before, maybe some that you’ve never used well. Each offers the magical possibility of finding out something at which you might be brilliant.
How do you hold on to that persistence? Through keying into your passions, whatever they are, and allowing them to change and grow and expand with your evolving life. You have to have something to write about, after all. If something fascinates you, there’s a good chance it will fascinate others, too. Keep expanding your horizons, browsing at the table of life, continually sampling in order to keep growing.
The final P is practice. Like dancers and musicians, writers must practice regularly, with dedication. And this is important: practice is not work performed in public, not a blog or a letter or an email, but something done in private, between you, the page, and your muses. In this public, connected age, using a form of communication that is tailor made for a writer’s pleasure—all words, all the time!—we’re in danger of forgetting this critical idea.
Practice is not work performed in public.
It is playing, experimenting, pouring out words to see how the flow might be shifting, changing. Julia Cameron recommends three pages of Morning Pages everyday, and while that’s more than I want to do. My practice is twenty minutes of whatever—short story, essay, journal—of raw, unedited writing that I do before I turn on the computer or start writing my main work. Even on a bad day, I can manage twenty minutes, and it connects me in an earthy, honest way to the work, so that I’m not always on, showing my knickers.
Maybe you’d prefer to do it at night, before bed, or you’d give yourself a treat of a cup of coffee away from home with a notebook. Whatever, the point is just to write for yourself, whatever you want to write.
Persistence, passion, practice. Which of those three gives you the most trouble?
Photo by purolipan