The other day I was listening to an interview with Ann Patchett on NPR. Several things she said caught my attention. For instance, she said, “I can teach you how to fix a sentence, how to make that character stronger, but I can’t teach you to have something to say.”
Her interview intrigued me to the point that I sought out my old friend, Google, and looked her up. She has a lot to say about writing, and she knows of what she speaks. A topic she hits hard that hit me hard was that balance between talent and hard work. Her thoughts reminded me of what Richard Ford (apologies, folks; I know I’m talking about adult fiction writers….), who, when I was working on a book-length biography and said “Richard, I don’t know if I know how to do this!” responded, “Writing is 5% talent and 95% butt in chair.” I think Patchett would agree.
For instance, she said “I’m always looking for ways to break rituals because I don’t want to become obsessive-compulsive, which I think is a real tendency in writers, or in people who spend lots of time alone trying to be self-motivated….I don’t want to have a special teacup; I don’t want to have a special sweatshirt. I don’t want anything to be the reason that I can work.”
Boy, do I have the reasons! Let me count the ways!
Patchett goes on to say the difference between writers and wannabe writers is simple: Hard Work. She says a writer has to accept his or her writing as “work.” It’s like getting up in the morning and going to the office. Not that one blocks out three hours between 10 – 1, no matter what, and writes, but writing is one’s work. It’s what you wake up every day expecting to do.
And that brings me to my next point in this “ramble.” I do not wake up each and every morning thinking about or planning to address my writing. Au contraire! I plan to do anything but! But I do think about my writing. I think about that story that I love, that’s in the drawer, that makes me feel guilty because I don’t pull it out, clean it up, and send it out. Alas.
And then, the next point of this “ramble” is that in a meeting with an agent I met two years ago, she said she liked this story. She liked the main character. She thought the story had appeal. Like a puppy being petted on the head, I immediately packed up my manuscript, went off alone for a few days, and did a complete rewrite. I was on a roll.
Home again, the manuscript went back into the drawer. Reading about my colleagues’ progress, their books, their activities, I felt like a complete loser. I went to the same school they did. I completed the same studies. I loved the same instructors. I love the art of writing, the challenge. I thought I had something to say. But I did nothing.
Ramble number three. Lo and behold, out of the blue, the same agent emailed me two weeks ago and asked, “How are you doing with that story? I’d love to see it when you’re ready.”
Really? Two years later? She remembers the story? I doubt it. I imagine she has something set up as an alert program on her computer that reminds her there was a story she liked once upon a time.
But hey. It was my story!
So, puppy patted on the head again, I pulled out the manuscript and in two days re-read it and edited it, and started entering the edits into the document on my computer. I was amazed! I cut phrases that added nothing to the story. I changed words. Stronger! More descriptive!. I thought of another writer of adult fiction who has influenced me immensely: Ernest Gaines. Ernie told me, “Write with fire, edit with ice.”
And I did. I edited with ice, I killed my darlings, and still, I love the story.
But I don’t work at writing. I dabble at it. And if Ann Patchett is right (and I suspect she is), until I really work at it, this story will go nowhere except where it is now: in my archives.
So this is the end of my ramble to anybody out there who is reading this. No matter how much natural talent you have, until, and unless, you make this your work, your great story probably won’t be read and appreciated by anybody but you.
And that would be a pity.