On Writing and Grit

In my opinion, one of the key benefits of being a writer is that you develop grit. You have to. Consider the novelist. When you write a novel, you are embarking on a project of many thousands of words, where you have to employ different skills—an ear for dialogue, an eye for description, a heart for story. It's quite the task, and, at first, it can seem impossible. At least it did for me. I knew I wanted to be a novelist ever since I was a young girl in love with books. But it took me a long time to actually finish a book. I didn't know about craft. I thought that you just sat down and wrote a story, and I kept abandoning my projects.

So there were times of excitement that led to a moment of abandonment and then silence, as if that story had never existed. In my case, I tried many times to write a book, but every time you try, it can feel more dangerous. How many times can I fail? What's the point? I spent years not writing anything. If I couldn't finish anything, why even try? Over time, I realized that, for me, writing fed my soul. I figured out that I would not feel happy unless I was writing and that I didn't want to just write things for myself. I wanted to complete projects. I wanted to write novels. I wanted to share my books with the world.

I finally came to an understanding where I knew I had to do it. And if I failed again, it was hard for me to imagine that I could ever try again. So I set out on my course. It was a process that would not receive high points in style with the judges. I spent an entire retreat crying because the way I wanted to figure out how to write did not fit in with the teachers' approach, and they tried to dissuade me off my path. At the time, I hated my fight. I don't like to cry in public. I don't like not being a Hermione. But there was finally a voice that said, “They don't see me. They don't understand me. They're trying to tell me that I can't do it, that I'm not ready, and everything they're saying goes against what I feel in my heart. And I'm grieving right now over how I have ignored my muse over the years, and I'm mourning how much I have tried to please other people, and I'm angry that they're treating me as if I'm an ant on the ground, when I'm actually a writer with things to say.”

I quit my writing group. I fired my teachers. I lost friends. When all this was going on, I was well aware that many people thought I was unstable at best, crazy at worst. But I couldn't care. My book was at stake. My whole writing life felt like it was connected to me with the slenderest of threads.

First I read. When I had said no to my teachers, my group, my writing friends, I walked into my office, and a book stared out at me from a shelf. I had purchased it years ago but never studied it. It was called The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson. I opened it up. It said something to the effect of, “You're about to embark on one of the hardest journeys of your life.” That seemed right. For that week, I read that book and took notes and started dreaming up how my book could work.

When I did start writing, I kept that book on the table next to me so I could always see it. I called it my guide book. If I felt anxious, I knew I had my trusty maps right there. And every time I sat down to write, I would write a scene list. I would see if I could remember the sequence of my story. I would comfort myself with these numbered items that would eventually make up my novel.

And then I wrote it. I often wrote by hand. Sometimes it felt like the words were edged with rust. I often had to rewrite my scenes many times before I would not cringe with embarrassment over my words. And I did it and published it and started another one.

It still isn't easy. I don't think it ever will be. But once I had that first novel written, I had a sense that I could do it. Even though the route may look circuitous and foolish, but I would eventually find my way and my people. And that happened. Once I started writing for myself with resolve, other writers and editors and readers started showing up in my path. I found they had just the right level of toughness and kindness. I felt clear that they loved me and understood me and supported my work.

The great thing about writing is that you can then transfer it to other aspects of your life. When you're faced with a challenge, you can say, “Hey, I wrote a novel, and at the beginning, I didn't know what I was doing. I bet I can figure this out, too.” Or “Yeah, this feels lousy at the moment, but not as horrible as when I didn't think I could write a book, and then I found these resources within myself to do it. I'm willing to ride the rollercoaster. I believe I will come out the other side.”

Those are the muscles that I have started to develop through having a writing practice and producing books: I believe I can do things. I trust my process (although many others think it's weird). I do not try to do what others do. I focus on what works for me. I help others, and I let others help me when it's appropriate. (I have to do the first draft alone. For me, the first draft is the number of iterations I can do on an evolving manuscript before I can't see it any more, and I have to turn it over to someone else.)

Yes, writing is hard. It's a challenge. It's humbling. There are always ways to improve. But isn't that great? I'm embracing the journey.