per·se·vere, /pərsəˈvir/ verb – To continue in a course of action even in the face of difficulty or with little or no prospect of success.
As writers we’ve all heard about the need for perseverance in our quest for success, right? Which I’m sure for many conjures images of writing away, day after day. Or perhaps it conveys doggedly submitting one’s work again and again, enduring rejection after rejection. Those are the two ways I used to think of it. Just keep going and eventually you’ll get there.
But at some point that way of perceiving it begs the questions: Keep going at what? And you’ll get where?
I clearly needed to broaden my understanding of what it means to persevere. And I had to come to a new level of acceptance. Let’s take a closer look at what can seem like an ominous word, shall we?
Broadening the ‘At What?’ of Persevering—You’ve Got To Change To Grow
After I finished a draft of my first manuscript, I spent about a year doing little more than shuffling words and commas. I simply didn’t know any better. I kept “editing” my work, then asking for feedback, and getting about the same results (mostly unfavorable). My mentality was one of just keep going, rather than to adapt and grow.
You’ve probably heard Einstein’s definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over, but expecting different results. Without commenting on my sanity, I’ll admit I resisted accepting that I needed to change—not just what was on the page, but in some cases my entire approach. Change is difficult. But the word difficulty is right there in the definition of perseverance. And though the word change might seem to contradict the phrase continue in a course of action, I believe change, or at least adaptability, is essential to maintaining any worthy pursuit. And that the ability to maintain a pursuit is essential to growth.
Broadening the ‘To Where?’ of Persevering—There Is No Finish Line
That same newbie that shuffled words and commas also presumed that the reason for persevering was to get published. And, once published, all would proceed in due course. I not only imagined a finish line, but that once I was past it there would no longer be any pressure or doubt involved.
Though I’m not yet published, I’ve come far enough to know that the publication of a debut is not a destination. It’s a rung on the ladder. I’ve come to see that the climb continues, that the pressure and doubt will never actually go away. I’ve also come far enough to admit to myself that this is a good thing. I mean, is there anything worse than buying a book that’s been phoned in? Without the pressure and doubt, would we continue to challenge ourselves? Would we reach for the next rung?
Of course, as with any endeavor, practice and accumulating competence increases the prospects for individual successes. But this gig will never be easy, and there will never be any guarantees.
So why persevere if there is no destination? If it’s not about finish lines, it’s got to be about the striving, and the change and growth the ongoing pursuit requires. When we choose the writing life, we choose to persevere, or we’re not doing it right.
Two Kinds of Perseverance
With our definition of perseverance broadened, let’s break it into the two types we all endure. I’ll call the two types internal and external perseverance.
Internal perseverance is simply doing the work—actually sitting down and writing. It’s office door shut, alone with your characters in a world of your creation. It’s word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence to The End.
But internal perseverance also includes the walks, and writing down snippets on a pad on your nightstand, and hurrying to record an idea after driving or getting out of the shower. It’s revision, of any sort. It’s also idea notebooks, and storyboards, and drawing maps, and collecting pictures of characters, and yes, even editing (as in shuffling words and commas).
Whereas external perseverance is everything about writing that involves contact with others. This type of persevering usually starts with study, such as reading craft books and blog posts. After study comes personal interaction. It can be online, such as commenting on blogs, through writing groups and forums, or simply via social media. Or it can be in person, such as in critique groups, classes, conferences, and retreats. And then, of course, there’s submitting and/or publishing your work.
But external perseverance is about more than just community interaction and publication. It’s inviting critique, and processing feedback, and working with agents and editors. And let’s not forget corresponding with readers. I suppose we can summarize by saying it’s putting yourself and your work out there. It’s about our connection with the outside world.
Which Type Challenges You?… Today?
At any given time, one type or the other will present more of a challenge. It can depend on the writer. For example, extreme introverts might have a tougher time persevering externally. Another writer may love their writing community and going to conferences, but for them getting through a draft is like pulling teeth. It can also often depend on the circumstance.
For the first several years of my writing journey, I had no trouble getting words on the page. But I simply couldn’t imagine interacting with other writers, let alone allowing anyone to read my stuff. A decade or so on, my circumstances have changed. I look forward to conferences. And I enjoy, and rely on, my interactions with community—including the daily conversation here at WU. I’ve also come a long way in regard to critique, both giving and receiving it, and utilizing it. I’ve evolved to having a greater struggle with internal perseverance. As an aspiring series writer, I find it challenging to continue to forge ahead with the fate of the previous edition still in question.
Don’t misunderstand, I love writing (I’m not sure any of us would persevere without love). Once I’m immersed, this story flows beautifully. I still find joy in the work itself. It’s between sessions that I grapple with resolve. Each day I have to remind myself that this work is important–to me even if to no one else.
So it’s an internal perseverance issue at the moment. But I don’t doubt this circumstance can reverse itself.
Persevering Isn’t Always Pleasant
Now I’ve gone and made our aspiration sound a bit like drudgery, haven’t I? Maybe even like you must be a masochist for choosing it. Well, let’s see if we can flip that outlook.
I’ll admit, this is not the first version of the final portion of this essay. I won’t tell you how many preceded it, but suffice to say, it required perseverance (heh, sorry). An earlier subtitle was At Peace With the Process. But I couldn’t quite put into words why we should be at peace with perseverance. After all, truth be told, I’m frequently not at peace with it. But isn’t that the point? I’ll say it again, difficulty is right there in the definition. The elements of aspiration that necessitate perseverance are there to keep us on our toes, not to provide a peaceful, easy feeling.
In other words, persevering isn’t always pleasant. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t accept and even embrace it.
Connoisseurs of Connection
I was on my nightly walk on our nearby beach when I had the epiphany that led to this essay’s revised ending. I’m frequently moved to photograph the lakeshore. In fact, I’ve averaged a couple of hundred saved photos per year for the last decade or so. Why? (I mean beyond obsessive compulsion.)
I’ll never perfectly capture the beauty of our majestic lakeshore. But I can document its changeability. And why would the inability to achieve perfection preclude me from trying?
Let me try another approach. Say you’re a fan of impressionist paintings, and you finally get to Chicago’s Art Institute, and you see Monet’s 1906 Water Lilies canvas. And you think it’s the closest to perfecting the style that you’ve seen… Thus far. Would you want to stop experiencing impressionist paintings? Should Monet have stopped painting his lily pond? I mean, he did 250 paintings of the subject. Do you think he ever thought he nailed it? Should he have quit? Or was his ongoing exploration fruitful?
If a musical artist has a hit record, does she stop seeking new techniques or approaches to preforming or recording?
Of course not, right? Do you think it’s incumbent upon the painter or the musician to keep trying; to change and grow; to explore various facets of their passions; to accept that they’ll never achieve perfection?
This is who we are. We write. We aspire to capture beauty. And joy. And sorrow and catharsis.
And we seek contact. Again and again, always exploring a new perspective, reaching for a new understanding, and a better way to convey what we’ve found.
We are storytelling devotees. Whether we struggle more with the internal or the external part of the process, we are dedicated to enlightening and elevating human interaction. We are connoisseurs of connection.
We are imperfect beings endlessly seeking perfection. Perseverance is part and parcel to who we are.
How’s your perseverance holding up, WU? Which type currently causes you the greater challenge? Have you embraced the unending striving required of our chosen life?
[Erawan Waterfall Access image attribution: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_calcassa’>calcassa / 123RF Stock Photo</a> ]