Monday, August 17, 2009

Good Old-Fashioned Grit

Some writerly friends of mine recently finished a challenging revision on a manuscript. They stuck to it, day after day, setting goals and reaching them, reviewing and editing, over and over, and now this new version of their book really rocks the house. They're proud of it, and rightfully so. But they should also take pride not just in the end result but of their mastery of the revision process.

Ho-hum, you say? Don't all writers work like this? The answer is a resounding, no way.

I've known a lot of writers in my time. I've worked on magazines, newspapers, and currently freelance for a company where the MFAs far outnumber the MBAs. I've spent time as a grad student in the English department of a university well-known for its creative writing program. I was friendly with some of the MFA students, but the line between them and us teacher-track nobodies was drawn pretty thick.

I was jealous of the creative writer folk. They were brave, glamorous, eccentric--and loved for it. I wanted to be in their crowd, but the fear of sharing my work with any of them was so acute, I never signed up for a single workshop. I went to their WIP readings, watched them in our shared offices, rowdy as if they were in a bar at 2am, but I never joined in.

Being an observer (ok, maybe a loser) does have its benefits, though. After a while I noticed how much these people talked about writing. And how much they drank. And flirted. And postured. What I didn't have any idea of, however, was how much they wrote. Or rewrote. After spending two years learning, partying, existing in tandem, I had a pretty good idea: not nearly enough.

I saw this when I was in the working world as well. Talented people. Very, very talented people of all ages and walks of life, with half completed novels and notebooks full of ideas, but somehow the work never got done. Life got in the way, at times, but more often than not it was the lack of something else, something defined quite well in a recent Businessweek article about the power of stick-to-itivness. Intelligence and creativity will open many doors, and keep them open, but a better predictor of success, according to a recent University of Pennsylvania study, is good old-fashioned conscientiousness and perseverance. In other words, grit.

And I was recently given a real-life lesson in this, from my writerly friends. We roll our eyes when starlets tell People magazine, "It's all about the work." But you know? They're exactly right. It's a lesson I've learned the hard way, but it's one I don't think I'll soon forget.


  1. Something tells me that you know a thing or two about the elbow grease involved in revising yourself, L. And I bet these writerly friends of whom you speak probably couldn't have done all this hard work with some pretty amazing readers and friends. Just a guess.

    Also just realized you could potentially become the third L! It could be LiLaLo. And after all of your recent contributions to our little team you probably deserve it.

    Anyways, I love this post. I think that we should all take a step back and pat ourselves on the backs for a minute. After all, we didn't just say we'd write a book, we didn't just start to write a book, we've all actually written books. And then after we wrote the books, we revised them half to death. And we'll all keep revising, rewriting, and reworking until some agent or editor falls in love. And that's pretty freaking impressive.

  2. I won't break my arm patting myself on the back, but yes, it is. But it took me a while to figure out how to finish things, you know?

  3. Pats on the back all around!

    LiLaLo-love it!