On Perseverance

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was 11, but as a teenager, I went through a period of time where I also wanted to be an actress. I’d always liked performing — I’d been in church pageants and school shows since the age of four, I’d fallen in love with Shakespeare at eleven, and in high school, I was getting a taste of “the real thing” (insomuch as that exists in a high school drama club). But when I was 15, my mother sat me down and said, “Honey. You’re a good actress. You’re never going to be a great actress.”

Now, at the time, I of course handled this with exactly as much grace, serenity, and wisdom as any hormonal, melodramatic fifteen-year-old would. In the years since, however, I’ve recognized what my mother was getting at, and I’ve come to thoroughly appreciate it. What she meant was that, given the choice between two pipe-dream-style careers which hinge as much on hard work, perseverance, and the ability to take a blow as they do on inspiration and talent, I needed to focus on the one that I was tough enough to endure. And she was right. I never cared about acting enough to do the things you have to do to make it as an actor. And I didn’t care in the right sorts of ways. While I liked being on-stage, liked memorizing lines and playing with characters, I could never get as much into the different techniques and methods behind that madness. I would not have done well in a conservatory. Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think my ego could have taken the rejections, and even if I’d met with some kind of moderate success, the cycles of tension would probably not have been good for me. Actors always have to have an eye out for the next job, and I don’t know that I could have stuck with it enough to deal with those conditions.

For writing, though — for writing I could face all of that.

I care enough about writing to have spent I don’t even know how many hours improving my skills over the years. They say it takes 10,000 hours to master something. I don’t know that writing is ever something you truly master, but I’m sure I’ve spent those hours and well beyond by now. As a teenager and college student, I filled dozens of five-subject notebooks (Mead 5 Star only, I was very specific in my preferences). I still have them all, living in a box under my desk, ready to pop out and embarrass me someday (or perhaps not. I remain perversely proud of my eighth-grade Star Wars fanfiction). I got into text-based roleplaying because it flexed similar muscles. I wrote and wrote and wrote because I loved it.

The hardest point, I think, was after grad school. I’d fallen out of the habit of writing fiction, because so much of my energy had to go into academic writing while I was pursuing my degree — and then my job after school used those same skills. Making time to write creatively was hard, but finding the energy was even harder. I began to understand how people can come home after an 8-hour workday and just zone out in front of the TV until it’s time for bed. But I pushed through it. I made myself write a little each day, even if it was just 100 words, whether fanfic or original, even if they made no sense. Even if they sucked. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration to strike — because inspiration is a lazy little tart who generally needs a good kick up the backside to get going.

Gradually, that built up. Gradually, I was able to push myself back to writing more each day. In 2011, I won Nanowrimo for the first time in years — and that story was the earliest incarnation of Aven. And then I kept going. I used to marvel at Stephen King writing two to three thousand words a day, six days a week, wondering how it was possible. But sometime in the last year and a half, I realized that, on days when I didn’t have to do anything else, 3000 words was a breeze. (In fact, when I’m at the beach — my most relaxed environment — I can bang out three or four thousand words and still have time for a lie-in, sunbathing, a bath, and a nice dinner with the family). So I did that. I finished a draft. I edited it. I pitched it in-person to a couple of agents at a convention. Based on their feedback, I edited some more, and some more, and some more.

And then, the querying. My ego, which is an admittedly tender thing and would have been pummeled in rounds of auditions, found it could miraculously sustain itself through the querying process. Maybe it’s because the rejection feels less personal this way — the agents never see you, of course. I was able to summon the requisite dispassion to acknowledge that, no, not every project is for everyone, but I was able to keep the optimism that, yes, someday, someone was going to want to fight for this project as hard as I did. That doesn’t mean there were never moments of crisis, never moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing. There were plenty of them, in fact. Those “what if I’m just not good enough?” thoughts creep in even when you’re trying your damnedest to keep up the optimism. But I was able to fight through those, and, after almost a year of polite form letters and more than a few dead silences, it paid off.

Now, having cleared that hurdle at last, the path is requiring a different sort of toughness. Editing is a difficult beast, and for the first time, someone else’s opinions and experience have to matter, too. Which is brilliant. Having someone else whose ideas can provoke me into making my manuscript even better is fantastic. It’s honing a different skill set — focusing the somewhat haphazard creative energy that typically contributes to my writing process. That focus helps me get a lot done in a short amount of time. I had a “day off” on Monday, and I spent at least eleven hours of it working. Some of that was editing old material, some of it was creating new material, some of it was poring through reference books, and some of it was just plain staring at the Scrivener corkboard until I figured out how I needed to re-arrange the puzzle pieces. And it was a good day. It felt like a good day. I went to bed exhausted, but I felt so positive about that.

So the point of all of this is that my mother was right. It’s not enough to have talent or desire. You have to choose the path that you care enough about to fight for. Trying to make it as an actress would have been a tremendously frustrating path for me to take, and one that probably would not satisfy me nearly as well even if I did meet with some moderate level of success. Trying to make it as a writer, though, has only pushed me to be better. It’s only made me want it more. I’ve grown a little bit of a thicker skin, I’ve learned to bounce back, and I’ve developed a real sense of duty about what I’m doing. I am not a dilettante, and this is not a pipe dream any longer. This is what I work at, what I’m willing to pour countless hours of my life and brainpower into.

And, as it turns out, I do still get to act sometimes. 😉

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