We’re at the end of another semester here at Ohio State University. I’ve gathered revisions from the students in my fiction workshops, and I’m starting to read through them. I’m celebrating the victories and pointing out the battles yet to be won. One student writes to say she’s getting comfortable with the messiness of the revision process. Then, this morning, I encounter this quote from Dostoyevsky: “Originality and a feeling of one’s own dignity are achieved only through work and struggle.” Exactly. As I’ve said before, writing is a life-long apprenticeship and past success has little bearing on future achievement. We might as well, then, get comfortable with a few things about the writing life. We might as well settle in for the long haul.
Here’s the truth, at least as far as I know it from my own experience. Here are the things I’ve had to make peace with over the years:
- We will fail more often than we will succeed.
- People will say no to us. . .a lot. They will say no to the pieces we submit for publication. They will say no to grant applications. They will say no to our attempts to find agents. It seems that there are countless ways for someone to reject or disregard us.
- People will continue to say no to us no matter how long we write, no matter how much success we have.
- We will meet the baser parts of ourselves in the form of envy, jealousy, and resentment.
- We will be tempted to quit.
- The ones who succeed are not always the most talented but, instead, the most persistent.
- Both praise and criticism can hinder us. Keep an even keel. Let the praise encourage you but not seduce you into thinking more of yourself than you should. Take the criticism that makes you better. Discard the rest.
- Mean-spirited criticism often comes from insecurity and downright stinginess. Don’t listen to it. Turn your attention to criticism that’s more constructive and generous.
- The world at large won’t understand how deeply our failures and disappointments can wound us. Don’t expect them to.
- We shouldn’t spend too much time wailing and gnashing our teeth because someone doesn’t like our writing. That’s all negative energy. We shouldn’t let it into our writing rooms.
In the end, my friends, it all comes down to the work we do alone in those writing rooms—that work that we love to do, that work that will get better and better the more we do it. Start by accepting these ten truths. Subtract whichever ones don’t seem to fit your own experience. Add the ones that do. Accept whatever you need to accept to keep doing your work, to do it with joy, to do it better.