“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” —Richard Bach
Steve Martin once said that perseverance is a good substitute for talent. And by golly, I hope he’s right.
Talent is sexy and compelling and mysterious. You can’t force talent—you can only hope it finds you. Perseverance and persistence, on the other hand, is easier to grab hold of.
Of course, you can (and should) always work to improve your craft and hone your skill as a writer. Whatever your thoughts about latent talent, it’s a fact that skill can be improved with practice. But that’s not what I’m talking about.
What I mean is, you can’t sit down and force yourself to write a passage of 500 words that are picture-perfect and ready to publish. You can’t force talent to show up, allowing your prose to bask in its magical glow. But you can force yourself to sit down and write 500 words every day.
Even when those words are garbage. Even when those words have nothing to do with the book you’re meant to be writing. You can still show up, honor your commitment to the page, and trust that you’ll eventually reap the benefits of your writing journey.
(At least, that’s what I’m hoping for.)
A note about writer’s block
If you’re thinking, “Persistence sounds well and good, but what about writer’s block?” you’re in good company. Sitting down and having nothing to say was my first tripping point in creating a daily writing habit. Life was the second—but we’ll get to that.
Writer, musician, and artist Morgan Harper Nichols views writer’s block as a sign that she needs to listen rather than create, or maybe to create something else instead of whatever she’s working on.
If you’re working on a deadline, or if you’re a professional writer with mouths to feed, this isn’t always possible. But sometimes you need to lean into an experience to get out of it.
Here are the two exercises that have worked best for me when writer’s block rears its ugly head:
- Stream-of-consciousness writing. When you engage in this form of writing, you’re not only ignoring any edits as you go—you’re not concerned about what you’re writing, or whether it makes any sense. The only rule is that your hand doesn’t stop moving until you hit your target word count or timed interval. In other words, the best cure for writer’s block is to write right through it.
- Meditation. The other option is to lean into the silence and allow thoughts to bounce around in your brain without attaching to any of them. Call it meditation, call it sitting quietly and breathing, but whatever you call it, it just might prompt some latent creativity for a writing session. And if nothing else, it gives you the space to listen.
Writer’s block takes a fair share of the blame when we fail to show up as writers, but it’s far from the only problem.
Case in point: as I write this, I’m sitting in my car outside a veterinary dentist’s office, waiting for my dog to come out of surgery. (He’s fine, by the way.) Somehow, he managed to break two teeth, and now he is having them removed. It’s not the way I’d expected to spend my Tuesday, leaving at 5:30 a.m. for an office over an hour away from home, and then working from a parking lot before an early call. But here I am.
This kind of thing happens all the time, to all of us, no matter how well-organized we are. Remember that old chestnut about the best-laid plans of mice and men going astray? We’re constantly getting derailed, sidetracked, and interrupted. The time we set aside for focused work doesn’t always pan out the way we expect.
Personally, up to now, I’ve been letting Life throw my novel-writing schedule completely out of whack. When Life happens, writing for pleasure is the first thing to go. I’m a professional copywriter, not a professional novelist; my time at the keyboard only pays the bills if I’m doing client work, not the creative work that I love.
But here’s the problem. Putting our writing off again and again in favor of those other things—which will probably get done anyway—becomes a bad habit that’s hard to break. Suddenly, we’re all right back where we started: telling people we want to write but never actually taking any action, because Life keeps getting in the way.
Sure, sometimes you’ll need to take your kids to the doctor (or in my case, your dog to the dentist). Your car will break down, or you’ll need to leave town for the weekend to comfort a friend in need.
But your writing will only ever happen if you take the time to sit down and make it happen, as often as you can. As it turns out, that persistence is just about the only thing that sets professional writers apart from amateurs.
Akiva Goldsman, one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood history, once said, “I was by no means the best writer in my class in college. I’m just the one still writing.”
Why persistence matters
Those interruptions that constantly mess with our experience of life? Those are our life.
If writing matters to you, you’ll find the persistence to get there. It might mean writing an entire novel on your cell phone in the few moments after your kids go to bed, or composing poetry on your lunch breaks at work.
The important thing isn’t what or why or how—the important thing is the verb itself. The act of writing.
Sure, it’s disheartening and embarrassing to miss the goals we set for ourselves. No one wants to feel like they failed, even if the only person who knows it happened is themselves.
But we don’t fail by missing our target word count, or our deadline on a book, or by taking a decade (or longer) to write our first novel. We fail when we give up, when we take the easier path and stop trying to do something that feels hard.
Consistency and persistence really are a writer’s superpowers, and the ones with the discipline to show up at their keyboard every day, no matter what—well, those are the writers whose names you know.
Because they’re the ones still writing.