Desperation and Doggedness: Why I Didn’t Stop Writing

This week we’re talking about the time we almost quit writing; the time we nearly tossed our computers out the second story window; the time we wrote terrible, angsty poetry. Our darkest time as writers, in other words.

My story is fairly simple. The closest I came to quitting was after the MFA workshop I described last week — the one where my teacher Calvin paniccalled my writing (among other things) “desperate.” That was a terrible blow to my fragile literary self-esteem, and at first I wondered if I should give this fledgling enterprise up. But I’d just enrolled in that damned MFA program; I’d paid the first semester tuition; and I had a teacher who wasn’t the one who thought I wrote like a desperate person waiting for me to send in my first packet. So I had a good cry, then deleted the fifty pages I’d written of my novel and started over from the beginning, trying desperately to seem less desperate.

I never thought about quitting again. Partly it was the MFA program, and the friends I made there. Partly it was because the teacher who called my writing “desperate” at the first residency called it “most improved” at the second. Mostly it was because I started writing at an age when there are few second chances, so I figured I should at least finish the novel, and if it turned out to be shitty, I could reassess the whole writing thing then. Over the next six years there were fits and starts, rewrites, digressions into narrative cul-de-sacs, and times I despaired that it would ever be any good. But I never again doubted I would finish it. The only questions were (1) how long it would take, and (2) whether it would be shitty.

I didn’t stick with writing because I love it. I feel this is an important distinction to make. Because we all love it, don’t we? Loving it isn’t enough. Plenty of people stop writing even though they love it. There are many reasons why. People get too many rejections, and get discouraged. They have kids, or their spouse gets sick, or they have to take a second job to pay the bills. They start a company, and entrepreneurship fires up a different part of their brain. They take up the guitar, and music feeds their spirit in a better way. Life intervenes, for better or worse, and writers stop writing.

A year after I finished my MFA program, I was wallowing in revisions, crippled by writer’s block. Poets & Writers magazine ran an article about MFA graduates ten years later. Someone they interviewed — I’d like to credit them, but I can’t find the article — said this: the difference between the MFA grads who are still writing ten years later and those who aren’t is that the ones who are still writing are still writing. That’s it. That’s the only difference. If you keep writing, you’ll keep writing. This ridiculous tautology smacked me in the face, hard, at a time when I really needed it. All I had to do was get up and do it every day. Put words on the page. Revise. Plot and explore and inhabit my characters. Change the story if it needed changing. Delete half the book. Write it again. Patience, grasshopper. Patience and perseverance.

I don’t mean to tout myself as some heroic Champion of Never Giving Up. I’m not. There are others on this blog who really exemplify thatsnoopy-writer drive; people who had novels rejected over and over again and kept writing new ones until they wrote one that sold. People who wrote through personal upheavals and health crises and new motherhood and exhausting day jobs. I don’t know if my writing could have survived any of what they’ve been through. There’s a brand of doggedness that enables you to write a novel even though it takes six years and nobody in the world gives the tiniest crap that you’re doing it. I’ve got that, and I’m proud of it — it’s a hard thing, to write a novel, even when life doesn’t throw obstacles and distractions in your way. But there’s something else that’s more remarkable: a stoic resilience that gets you up off the mat even though you’re knocked down hard. That, I’m not sure I have. I sure as hell admire the people who do, though, and I hope you read their testimonies this week. Because if you’re writing, theirs are the stories you really need to hear.


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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 2 Comments

  1. I don’t know Heather… this is pretty bad ass: There’s a brand of doggedness that enables you to write a novel even though it takes six years and nobody in the world gives the tiniest crap that you’re doing it.

  2. I love this: “[I] started over from the beginning, trying desperately to seem less desperate.” Good for you! I look forward to reading your book!

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