Talent. Luck. Hard work. If you have all three, you will definitely be published. With only two, you have a good chance of seeing your work in print. With just one, your chances fall considerably, although it’s still possible, especially if you’re blessed with luck. I’ve forgotten exactly where I read this advice when I was a novice writer, but it’s stayed with me for over a decade (my apologies to the veteran who wrote this—I hope the sharing of your wisdom will partially make up for the lack of attribution!)
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Interestingly enough hard work is the only one of these elements within an individual writer’s control. Talent is something you are born with and much harder to determine in yourself than another, so an aspiring writer must soldier on without sure knowledge she has It to complete the magic three. While it could be argued that preparation paves the way for luck, by its very definition, luck is something we can’t really order on demand. But, and perhaps I’m being romantic, in almost every case you can become a better writer by writing--a lot, day after day, year after year—whether or not the muse is with you or money and fame reward you. Much like a musician, you will improve if you practice.
Yet hard work is the element that is also glossed over in the popular portrait of the Real Writer, who spends her days by her swimming pool giving interviews to the press about her lastest critically-acclaimed bestseller. Naturally, since celebrity is the modern manifestation of aristocracy, such a being doesn’t sweat or get dirt under her fingernails.
I lay part of the blame for this misconception on the cinematic montage, the classic way to show major growth and progress in the movies, which, let’s face it, reach a far greater audience than books. The writer, frustrated, yanks a piece of paper from his typewriter and tosses it in trash—or in a more modern incarnation frowns at his laptop and deletes a huge block of text. In the next ten-second scene, he repeats the procedure (perhaps downing a blender full of raw eggs for strength). On the third pass, he smiles at his work, and in the fourth, he’s typing merrily. In the next instant, he’s shaking hands with a prominent editor and being taken off to lunch, concluding with a book signing with a mob of adoring fans.
Intellectually we know this is supposed to represent a year’s worth of effort, or more practically ten, but emotionally, I wonder if we don’t all think that writing a bestselling book takes all of two minutes. That’s how it happens on the screen after all. And while we can all agree this is a convenient fiction and shouldn’t be taken seriously, I believe these fantasies can have an unfortunate influence on our subconscious. If the words, money and fame don’t come easy, then we don’t have It. We aren’t Real Writers.
In grappling with my own relationship to the hard work of writing—beginning with the fact I only had the courage to devote the necessary focus and effort to writing at the less-than-precociously-talented age of thirty-five—I’ve come to realize that I don’t want to waste my time reading something that is not the result of hard work. Perhaps the actual writing of the story took but a day (which has happened for me only once in a hundred stories I've written), but the preparation, the gestation of ideas, the apprenticeship took years of focus and dedication.
That’s why I so appreciate stories of the writing life that celebrate the hard work, rare as they are. That’s why I’ll freely admit I spent fourteen fallow years between minoring in creative writing in college and sending out my first story, took five years to write my first novel and five-and-counting to write the second. It’s not glamorous. It’s not the most efficient way to “achieve” fame or money. But it is deeply satisfying to see a long-term dream come to fruition.
I still agree that talent, luck and hard work do play a role in the mysterious equation that leads to publication. Yet for me, true success requires more—respect for your ideas, your reader's time, and the process of storytelling itself. That's all you need to be a Real Writer, swimming pool not required.