When the Writing Life Isn’t About Talent, Discipline, or Stubbornness

The act of risking and enduring failure is celebrated at length these days. I don’t know if this is a new phenomenon, perhaps arising out of Silicon Valley startup culture, or if it’s an old philosophy that’s become newly relevant. Certainly humans have had to face their fears again and again, and fear of failure is one of the most significant.

Author Melissa Yancy (@melyancy), in her essay The Upside of Failure, shines a new light on what failure brings to the writing life. Her exploration isn’t the usual reflection on rejection, but rather a contemplation of what it means to keep writing when you don’t or can’t launch into it full-time, and it’s a day job that pays the bills. She writes:

… over the last decade, I’d seen many of my friends stop writing fiction, or stop writing altogether. It wasn’t from lack of talent, and more surprisingly, it wasn’t about discipline, either. The writers I knew who had taken their writing most seriously—working part-time, freelancing, and making significant financial sacrifice to spend more time on their work—were the ones who most easily gave it up when a stable career opportunity came around.

For years, when all else failed, I would think of something I’d heard Ron Carlson say: the writer goes to the stubborn. If I didn’t feel disciplined, or inspired, or talented, I knew I could be that: I could be stubborn. But when I talked to friends who had been able to give it up, I realized it was no longer stubbornness that kept me coming back.

Read Yancy’s entire essay in the latest Glimmer Train bulletin.

Also this month at Glimmer Train:

 

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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8 Comments on "When the Writing Life Isn’t About Talent, Discipline, or Stubbornness"

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Bonnee

Hi Jane. Thanks for sharing this passage from Yancy’s essay–it’s beautiful and terrifying. I’m about to step out of university and I’m both excited and afraid to see how my friends and I travel, if we’ll find some sort of magical balance between a day-job and writing, or if we’ll give it up for something more stable. So this was very relevant to me.

Lynne Spreen

Well, I feel better. I had to get a fulltime job at 19, meaning college and writing took last place. It took me 18 years to get my bachelor’s degree–but I did it. And it was another 22 years before I could retire from my HR career and write in earnest. But my career earned me a pension, and my writing earned me an award for my debut novel at age 58. Life doesn’t always go the way we imagine it should, but that isn’t necessarily bad!

Michael W. Perry
Years ago, I worked on the Hem-Onc unit of a top children’s hospital caring for kids with leukemia, an experience I describe in My Nights with Leukemia. One of my patients was a baby girl diagnosed at six-months with a form of leukemia so rare, the medical literature only described 32 cases. Complications quickly sent her to our ICU, where she was given only a two percent chance of leaving alive. After she came back to Hem-Onc, so weak at ten months she couldn’t even hold a bottle, I talked to one of her ICU nurses. They would have given… Read more »
Michael W. Perry

I’ll add one additional remark. Back in the 1950s, a new writer was typing, editing, and retyping her manuscript, trying to please her editor. At one point she became so frustrated, she hurled the latest manuscript out the window of her apartment. Realizing she might have made a mistake, she called her editor. He calmly told her to go down, collect up the pages, and get back to work.

When finished, Harper Lee’s frustrations were transformed into To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the best-loved novels of all time.

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[…] When the Writing Life Isn’t About Talent, Discipline, or Stubbornness (Jane Friedman) The act of risking and enduring failure is celebrated at length these days. I don’t know if this is a new phenomenon, perhaps arising out of Silicon Valley startup culture, or if it’s an old philosophy that’s become newly relevant. Certainly humans have had to face their fears again and again, and fear of failure is one of the most significant. […]

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[…] Source: Melissa Yancy’s “The Upside of Failure”, in Glimmer Train‘s Bulletin (via Jane Friedman) […]