I’ve been writing something; a diary/journal, essay, short stories, research paper, (for myself and others) for decades. After high school and college, I always gravitated toward professions — for the most part — that required a good deal of writing and tapping away on a typewriter (those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s kind of like a computer but without a screen and access to the entire world :)), and then a computer.
From the first receptionist job I took at a Pennsylvania factory (I wanted to hang out in the factory and make things, but the German woman who interviewed me said, “No! You look like you need to be out front, not in the back!) at the tender age of nineteen, I was stringing words together professionally; letters to vendors, employees, “inter-office” memos and such. That led to other writerly type jobs and in-between all that busyness of working, making money and trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up (still don’t know, but world-famous author is at the top of my list) I’d write fiction. I read through some of that earlier writing and shudder, thinking — wow, that’s really bad. But, they give me ideas now, so it wasn’t all for naught.
I tend to do things backwards, getting my degree in my 30s instead of going straight out of high school, to what I do now, freelance writing in crazy busy spurts to tiny, little drips where I have loads of time to go back to my novel that I’ve yet to finish.
And, there it is. I’ve not finished my book…I let other things get in the way and there’s always an excuse. A job to finish, a move to make, a class to take — if you’re a writer, you know exactly what I mean. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m just fooling myself and maybe I’m not a “real” writer, I just want to be one.
In Anne Lamontt’s book, bird by bird (a great read, I highly recommend picking up a copy, I just did myself and am currently reading), she says that her students, before they’ve finished their book want to know how to get an agent. She tells them (and I’m paraphrasing here) that when the time comes, you can find an agent, but you first have to get down to the business of writing.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve asked that same question — in creative writing classes I’ve taken — how do you find an agent? I’ve stopped now because unless I have my big, meaty novel finished, what difference does it make?
If I finish it, they will come. (I hope, I hope, I hope…).
Great Writers with Staying Power
Stephen King started writing Carrie when he was teaching English for $6,400 a year and working at a laundromat to make ends meet. He was paid $200K when Doubleday accepted it, an enormous amount at that time in the 1970s. But, before he ever got there, he had tons of rejections and lots of ideas, many of which turned into best-selling short stories and novels.
John Grisham was a lawyer in Mississippi and worked sixty to seventy hour work weeks (reportedly getting up at five a.m. before going to work) to write A Time to Kill, which received a lukewarm response when it was published when he was twenty-nine. His next book, The Firm was the best-selling novel in 1991. To date, there are over 275 million of his books worldwide translated into 40 languages.
Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t get anyone interested in publishing her work until she was in her 50s. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was published when he was forty-four. Although Elizabeth Gilbert had published a few books before Eat, Pray, Love it was this book that put her on the publishing map.
The all-time example of staying power? Toyo Shibata, who at 99, published a book of poetry (Kujikenaide, translates to Don’t Lose Heart) that has sold 1.5 million copies since 2009. She began writing at 92 and plans to finish another by the time she’s 100 which is June of this year.
What all of these creative masters have in common is certainly not overnight success — it seems so because we don’t know what they went through to get to where they are and didn’t hear about them before they became famous — they stuck with it.
Inspiration from Those Who’ve Been There
“I wish I had a secret I could let you in on. . .but I don’t. All I know is the process is pretty much the same for everyone I know.” –from bird by bird by Anne Lamott
“Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky. . .” –from On Writing by Stephen King
“Find a subject you care about. Do not ramble, though. Keep it simple. Have the guts to cut. Sound like yourself. Say what you mean to say. Pity the readers.” –from Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut
“I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.” –John Steinbeck
Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine. –Margaret Atwood
“What I did have, which others perhaps didn’t, was a capacity for sticking at it, which really is the point, not the talent at all. You have to stick at it.” –Doris Lessing
And, I’ll end this now with the wise words of the nearly-centarian poet Toyo Shibata, “Don’t Lose Heart.”