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betty smith

Monthly Wrap: When Patience is Required

by Susan Henderson on January 9, 2009

Years ago, when I left my job as a rape crisis counselor, I was presented with a plaque. In beautiful calligraphy, my co-workers had listed the qualities they valued most about me: Dedicated Somethingerother. Compassionate Listener. Some Other Things. Patient.

I showed the plaque to Mr. Henderson, and he asked, “Do you think they meant this as a joke?”

Because not only am I known for listening only when I feel like it, but I will do things like put a frozen waffle in the toaster, and as soon as the edge is even slightly cooked, I’ll eat around the outside because I can’t wait two minutes for something I want.

You’d think I’d have picked a career that involved immediate rewards.

But logic is never one of the reasons a person becomes a writer. You know how it is. Your friends see you madly scribbling your ideas down on paper. They see you carrying around typed pages, crossing out words, circling things and drawing arrows here and there. They comment on how you disappear for weeks, sometimes months, to work on your manuscript. And, innocently, they ask, “What have you published?” And, “Can I read your book?”

They have no idea why these questions are so deeply frustrating. Or how a person can write for months, for years, and have nothing to show for it. Nothing that counts on their terms: A trip to the bookstore to find a beautiful hardcover book on one of those front tables.

It baffles them how you can write so slowly. How the things you’ve published are so hard to find. How you are never, or hardly ever, paid for your work. How, after not being paid for twenty years, you continue to call yourself a writer. And yet, that’s what you are. And you know the big break will come soon. It must. Because you’re good. Because you have things to say. Because you know your writing is better than the books on the bestseller list, or it will be after this next revision.

So what do you do while you hope someone falls in love with your work? What do you do while you hope for that career break?

If you’re an impatient type, you do this: You move forward. You put your finished manuscript in play, and then you get to work on the next one. And you try to make this new thing the best you’ve ever written. You move forward because a writer doesn’t wait; a writer writes.

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I can’t tell you how moved I was by your answers this week on how and why you endure, and was glad to see David Niall Wilson continue the discussion over on his blog with a post entitled Perseverance: Writing is NOT the Hardest Part.

What I read this month: Tawni O’Dell, Back Roads (Dark and brilliant); Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Love it even more now than when I first read it as a teenager. Choked me up so many times. No real plot, but, oh, what a portrait of a generation! Wonder if it would sell today?); Wally Lamb, The Hour I First Believed (Wow. First half of the book is better than the second half, but still: Wow); Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms (Like most first books I’ve read, particularly the unpublished ones, it’s a bit of a mess. But here and there is something wonderful, like this: “They can romanticize us so, mirrors, and that is their secret: what a subtle torture it would be to destroy all the mirrors in the world: where then could we look for reassurance of our identities? I tell you, my dear, Narcissus was no egotist…he was merely another of us who, in our unshatterable isolation, recognized, on seeing his reflection, the one beautiful comrade, the only inseparable love…poor Narcissus, possibly the only human who was ever honest on this point”).

What I read to my kids this month: Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (Just try to read the first 2 pages and not buy the book. Loved it); Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales (We read this out loud every year, and whoever happens to be reading when they get to snowballing the cats, or Ernie Jenkins, or the dry voice singing on the other side of the door always feels like they won the lottery).

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Thank you to my January guest, the fabulous editorial cartoonist Jimmy Margulies. Thank you to everyone who played here this month.

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