The most important attribute for a writer? If we were to ask this question to those who have never written a word but claim they will write a book one day, I’d wager they’d answer that the most important thing writers must have is that innate skill of how to write—good writers are born knowing how to write, right? Some may claim creativity as the most important—the ability to imagine fictional people and write about them realistically. Others may suggest that it’s the type of story, like speculative fiction, erotica or chick lit, thinking that if you write something that’s in (trending), you have it made.
Of late, I have been thinking about this question. Perhaps because the book I am currently writing has been filled with challenges, to the point that I have made none of my writing deadlines. My inner voice screams, “Why are you wasting your time on this? No one will ever want to read it!” If you are a writer, you know that voice. And it is important to understand why we hear it.
The Universal Law of Writing
I am sure you have experienced exactly what I have but perhaps you have not stopped to consider what I believe is a universal law. One that demands opposition to creation: anytime you create something brand new, you’ll get pushback. Whether from that critical ‘editor’ in your head, an opinion of a friend or what Stephen Pressfield calls ‘resistance’, each time we sit down to write, we face opposition. Since I am Christian, I occasionally have another name for Pressfield’s resistance.
After figuring out why I’m having so much trouble with this specific book, I began to think about the sound of that voice at other times in my life. With projects or goals which had nothing to do with writing. The words were different but only slightly. “You really think you can pass this course?” Or “You think he really likes you?”
One Critical Reason for Success
And it is doggedness, resolve, stick-with-it-ness. The most important attribute for a writer is also the most important trait of a musician, medical doctor, engineer, stay- at- home Mom or anyone in pursuit of anything under the sun. There are many names for this single characteristic; persistence, grit, determination and tenacity are only a few. It is never intelligence or looks or money, although many of us assume these are the reasons that Bill Gates or Jennifer Garner or Mark Zuckerman are so successful.
Recently, I was reminded of what I have experienced throughout my life, each time I began something big and with long-term commitment, like a textbook, or a doctorate or a novel. There is only one way I repel the resistance, the voice and the critics. I ignore them and stay focused on the goal, even when I cannot see it or even believe that it is even there.
Of the list of nouns above, I like grit. A simple, one syllable word made somewhat famous by Angela Duckworth, a psychologist who grew up among geniuses and fully aware she was not one of them. Her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has become a best seller in personal transformation and self-help at Amazon. Duckworth began by studying seventh graders then West Point Cadets, as she looked for attributes which would predict success, measured by passing her math class and graduating rather than dropping out of West Point. She’s even developed a scale to measure grit. Go ahead, take it here. The questions are simple and will tell you where you rank in grit compared to thousands of other people. (And if you are interested in her Ted Talk from three years ago, here it is. Only six minutes, it will be worth your time, I promise.)
Okay, you may be thinking along about now, perseverance is important, you get it. But what about those days when the writers block is so severe that you cannot write a word? You have them, don’t you? Those days when all that determination merely wastes your time and makes you feel like a failure?
I am so glad you brought this up!
I had not thought of these challenging days as writers block but maybe that is the best description. Take last week for example.
My plan for each day was to write a few thousand words on the book, at least fifteen hundred. On Monday I wrote over over two thousand and planned to have ten thousand done by Friday morning. But Tuesday and Wednesday were filled with unexpected visitors and Thursday was not much better. After two hours into my peak writing time Friday morning, I realized I was editing every phrase as soon as I write it. Part of the problem? I did not feel all that well, had little energy because I was pushing too hard to catch up.
So, I took a deep breath. I stopped. And walked away from it. As painful as it was, I accepted the fact that I couldn’t work on the book that day, and would not come even close to my deadline for the week.
So, I found other ways to feel productive, like writing this article for Suzanne and fertilizing my rose bushes. Taking the dogs for a hike when I feel better. Or cooking a great meal for my husband and me. Or going to bed to read a Clive Cussler novel.
Finding Persistence, Grit, Determination and Tenacity
Duckworth admits several times in her Ted talks that she has no idea how to help kids develop grit, that ability needed to finish what they start but you and I do, because we are writers. Four things are required:
- Expect obstacles, all of them, the rejections, those unproductive days and the critics. Then we are not caught unaware when out of the blue, someone takes their machine gun to our manuscript, like our editor.
- Understand, appreciate and accept that our deadlines are targets only, the sun will still come up tomorrow even though we did not make our goal.
- Try, with all our might, heart and soul to enjoy the process of writing, the ups and downs, the days, even the weeks when we cannot write a word and appreciate the unplanned respite.
- Know that these steps will become habit, no different from brushing our teeth, tying our shoes permitting us to laugh at those voices when we hear them.
What have you found to be the biggest obstacle in your writing?