Four Notes on Durability
“Writing in the Cold,” an essay by Ted Solotaroff, is a cult classic among writers. Though it was written in the ’80s, it’s as thought-provoking as the day it was published. Here’s the nut of the essay, as summarized by Dani Shapiro in the L.A. Times:
Solotaroff wondered where all the talented young writers he had known or published when he was first editing New American Review had gone. Only a few had flourished. Some, he speculated, had ended up teaching, publishing occasionally in small journals. But most had just . . . given up. “It doesn’t appear to be a matter of talent itself,” he wrote. “Some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared. As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is durability: that is, the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without.
It’s the same in any creative field. Recently I was listening to a couple of comedians on a podcast. They were talking about going to comedy clubs to watch emerging comedians. What were they looking for? Not flashes of talent. Not a fresh perspective, or a unique delivery. “I want to see who has the unquenchable fire,” said one of the comedians. The other comedian knew what he was talking about, and so did I.
I’ve edited for print magazines, online magazines, and small presses. In other words, I’ve spent years of my life reading submissions, which has led me to the following conclusion. The leading reason that stories get rejected isn’t because the writing is bad, or the premise is dumb. My most common response to a submission goes like this: There’s something good here. It’s just not done yet. It needs another draft (or three).
Living with a piece until it is fully realized is a kind of endurability, too. It takes revising skill, of course, but more than that, it takes strength of will. Patience as an action. What those writers need to do—what you and I need to do—is to abide with a story, re-write after re-write, until it reaches its full potential. Not until it’s “good enough.” Until it is itself, fully. Until you exceed yourself. Until the story is better than you are.*
Even if you aren’t churchy, you probably know this line from the Gospel of Matthew: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
That’s the most well-known version of that line, anyway. The only problem is that it gets the tense slightly wrong. Here’s a more accurate translation from the New Living Translation:
“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.”
Durability. Patience as an action. The unquenchable fire.
Okay, pep talk over. Get out your map/outline/storyboard from yesterday. Then open up a blank page in your notebook or a new document on your screen and re-write the story.
Yes, again. “The gifted young writer,” says Solotaroff, “has to learn that [their] main task is to persist.”
Once again, be open to new possibilities that suggest themselves in the moment.
*How do you know when a piece is finished? you might be wondering. I’ll take up this question at the end of the regimen. For now, all you need to know is this: You’re not there yet.