17th September 2012

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Determination and Stamina

The subject of determination and stamina came up recently with some writer friends.

I feel like I can talk about this with some authority not just for myself but because I’ve been in contact with writers from all stages since I was in high school, when my best friend and I decided we were going to be novelists, so we started writing a novel together. That was over two decades ago, and I’ve been pretty much writing since then. I’ve encountered many, many different kinds of writers, and have seen the careers of some take off, and others falter and fail. And what seems to indicate future success has almost nothing to do with talent. Talent is wonderful as a bonus. A facility with language and a native intelligence also helps. Luck has some role. But determination and stamina — the ability to persevere in the face of rejection and disappointment — is what seems to link the writers who publish or sell their work, and continue to do so and thrive in their fields.

I learned this in part from reading about the writers I’ve admired — biographies in which the intrepid biographer dug up rejections, notes, and anguished letters from my favorite writers who have gone through exactly what I was going through. Just because Faulkner won the Nobel Prize didn’t mean that long before that he was almost certain his career was over, and everyone soundly rejected all his work. Just because Fitzgerald’s novels now sell about 10,000 copies a month doesn’t mean that toward the end of his life he kept writing even though most of his novels were out of print. He died while working on The Last Tycoon, and that year total sales of all his work were 42 copies. Hell, even I outsell the out-of-favor Fitzgerald.

Of all the writers I’ve known and taught, writers I’ve even been in workshop with, whose brilliance and lyrical gifts awed and humbled me, it was almost never those achingly beautiful writers who went on to publish and make a career for themselves. It was the middle-of-the-pack writers who kept plugging away, who listened and absorbed the criticisms leveled at them, revised and rewrote, and when it seemed they had been beaten down by peers, teachers, agents and publishers, they dusted themselves off, sat back down at their desks, and started a new project.

One my former students had a first novel come out not too long ago. His story is particularly rewarding because his novel received over 60 rejections. His novel made the rounds over such a long period of time that a new roster of editors would be at a publishing house by the time he resubmitted to them. His agent gave up and quit. His debts loomed and he had to work extra hours at his grunt job to pay his rent. His novel was good, very good, but it was also harsh and bleak and difficult, and obviously not very commercial, and because we became friends I saw the toll of the rejections. Yet he continued to submit his novel on his own, and continued to write. It was over two years of submissions, and he managed to finish a new novel while this was happening. And then, finally, when it rains… He got two offers toward the end, both from small publishers, both good literary houses.

And the thing is, even if that novel never found a publisher, he would’ve began submitting his second one. And if that didn’t get published, he’d write a third one. Eventually, it would happen. How could it not?

I have writer friends who are smart and perceptive, who write very compelling fiction and scripts, but who have given up on a project after one or two rejections. I know some writers who had easy acceptances early on, only to face the brutal realities of publishing and Hollywood later, confronted with unfamiliar and humiliating rejections of subsequent novels, stories, and scripts and because it had seemed so easy early on, they crumbled.

The point of this is simple: expect rejection and difficulty, and know that you can work through it. Determination and stamina. You must brave forward, no matter what.

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