50 Shades of Perseverance

Sherwood Smith has a very interesting post on her Live Journal about writer-brains, persistence, and careers.  It comes down to (in my reading): most writers aren’t in it for the money or the fame, but for other, less tangible benefits.  This can seem inexplicable to the writer’s family, friends, and the genpop.

In some ways I’m luckier than many of my colleagues, whose families didn’t get any of this and tried to apply the standard wealth-and-acclaim definition of success to writing.  My father and brother were artists; my mother wanted to be a writer.  As long as I wasn’t panhandling for change to support myself, my family has always been pleased that I was writing.

I also–unlike many of my colleagues–do not live by my writing.  For many years I free-lanced as a copywriter, editor, tech writer, etc., which gave me almost enough money to hold up my end of the family exchequer.  When it wasn’t enough, I went and got a job.  So I don’t have the immediate sell-something-or-baby-goes-hungry motivation.  I never wanted to put that kind of pressure on my writing, because it makes me freeze up in a counterproductive way.

And I am lazy. I’m not driven the way some of my colleagues are.  Getting started is tough some days, tough enough that I don’t get started–I mend the jeans in my sewing basket, or make a cake, or play another hand of Scrabble.  If the only time I could write was between 5 and 6 am, I would likely never write another word.  I know this is blasphemous, but it’s also true.  Lazy, lazy, lazy.

And yet: I wrote my first book, Althea, in the winter of 1976.  And I’ve been writing, with hiatuses (hiati?) since then.  Not aggressively, not with the sort of focused, determined woman-with-a-plan work ethic that many writers’ how-tos suggest is absolutely necessary.  I persist, in my own lazy way.  Why?

I have a complex series of reasons I write; it may be that none of them apply to any other writer (I suspect that many do, but maybe not all of them in combination).

  • I write because story is my drug of choice.
  • I write as a way to figure human behavior. In a broad sense this lets me open the door to consider motivation in the people around me, and makes me (I like to think) a more compassionate person.
  • I write because it gives me an excuse to read more and learn more.
  • I write because I can.  After chasing after other things, it winds up that one of the things I’m good at is putting words together.  It gives me pleasure, as any exercise of competence gives me pleasure.
  • I write because I like the idea that I can share the worlds and people in my head with other people.  And yes, I like it when someone says “I really love that story.” Human beings are very separate creatures; we’re all walking around in our own heads, hoping to make connection, validate our perceptions.  This is how I do it.
  • I write because it delights me to see my words in print.  O! vanity.

You will note that nowhere in that list do fame or fortune appear.  I know better.

I guess the burden of this rumination is just: there’s no right way to be a writer.  You don’t have to live in a garret, be a hermit, be a drunk, have consumption, die an unpleasant death, fall in unrequited love, chain-smoke, suffer a crushing blow and then write a magnum opus, or any other cliché.  You don’t have to go after a career–there’s no moral imperative here.  What you have to do is write.

And you can do that any way that works for you.




About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


50 Shades of Perseverance — 8 Comments

  1. I have to say, of all the “this is my approach to writing” posts I’ve seen, this may be the first one to which I’ve afterward thought “I resemble those remarks!”

    • I tend to be deeply suspicious of how-to’s and The Writer’s Life essays, because I always walk away feeling like I must be doing it wrong. So when I write a “this is my approach to writing” post, I keep wanting to hedge it round with neon signs blinking YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY. I’m glad you found some points of resemblance.

  2. When I walked into the Bean Scene Cafe this morning, my coffeedate was reading “Point of Honour”, and loving it. That’s why you write. If you didn’t, if you never had, we would all fall screaming into an alternate universe with no Sarah Tolerance, and life would be that much grimmer.

    Incidentally, did you come under any pressure to call it “Point of Honor”?

    Also incidentally, I think I have committed all your writerly clichés except (so far) consumption and death. I am such a traditionalist…

  3. I came under no pressure to remove the U in the titulary Honour, but I have taken some flak for using it in a book which otherwise uses American spelling. I don’t know why, but I felt that the U was important in some inchoate way. I’m all about the inchoate.

    I haven’t had consumption and I haven’t died, and I haven’t been a hermit (though I’ve come close once or twice). Any other good writerly clichés I missed?

  4. Read this after spending at least 15 minutes trying out different letter combinations for a game on Words with Friends. (What did I want to do? Be clever (make “codex” out of “dex”) or rack up points with a more obvious move?) Now it’s time to go get feed the box turtles and take the laundry out of the dryer. So I am like you. You’re right. It’s laziness. Very few activities are as hard as writing. But I’m driven to do it for the same reasons as you. And I’ll get around to it — tomorrow. Honest.

    • Maybe it’s just gestational musing? That’s my new theory.

      When I write, I enjoy it above almost anything. When I need to write, I avoid like the plague. Gods in their heavens know why.

  5. Beautiful post. Your fifth bullet point resonates especially with me.

    Also, I don’t think it’s laziness. You can’t rush writing, or the joy leaches out of it, in my opinion. It’s not laziness: it’s fruitful waiting.