A Continual Work in Progress
Becoming an author requires more than a passive interest in writing stories and daydreaming about seeing your name on the cover of a book. It’s about dedication to the end product and a single-mindedness that keeps you focused when life offers distractions. In the corner of a writer’s mind is a white sheet laid over the mental desk and typewriter to which they’ve forgotten to return. If we are not diligent in our practice, the weight of a full-time occupation can be enough to drag down the most talented of writers, too distracted by the work week to accomplish more than what has already been assigned. Studies, exams, and essays bog down the student with technical terms and hinder the creativity that yearns to be expressed. Since prolonged stress and sleep-deprivation are fundamental aspects of the college experience, it’s only a matter of time before quantity and quality of writing begin to suffer. Between deadlines, presentations, and finals, it’s not surprising that most students might choose to defer the completion of their novels until after graduation.
Stress and responsibilities, however, are not going to miraculously disappear. While we all struggle with overburdened calendars, it’s important not to give up writing, even if there are some days when the only thing we can do is think about writing. If just one well-written paragraph is all we can manage, we must consider that one paragraph as an essential brick in the foundation of our great project. Stephen King worked as a laundry laborer after he married his college sweetheart. He was eventually hired as an English teacher before becoming the best-seller we know him as today. When he wasn’t teaching, he was writing short stories and novels during the evening and on the weekends. He also sold short stories to magazines for extra money. Eventually, his work paid off, and Carrie was picked up for publication in the Spring of 1974. J.K. Rowling, too, taught for a living as she drafted her Harry Potter series. She was a single mother raising a daughter, living on welfare. Whenever her daughter took a nap, Rowling would dash to the coffee shop with her baby in the stroller and write as much as she could with the time she had. She suffered through several rejection letters, but her hard work did pay off, finally, with her first book’s publication in 1997.
In my interview with Katherine Arden, author of The Bear and the Nightingale, she describes to me the fateful decisions she made that led her to make her ethereal trilogy. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, where she majored in French and Russian Literature (as well as a few Moscow adventures). Soon enough, Arden decided she was no longer suited for cold weather. Being the free-spirited adventurer that she is, Katherine set a course for Hawaii, where she began working on a macadamia nut farm.
Writing became her outlet, she tells me. At this point, she had never written a novel. She recounts her family’s reaction to the mercurial approach of her first book, telling me they weren’t necessarily unsupportive, just confused.
“I’d gone from being a languages major to thinking about joining the foreign service and all of a sudden I’m like ‘Guys, I’m going to write a book and publish it and be a writer.’” She adds that they questioned whether she knew how to write a book and were concerned she wouldn’t have a stable income. Ultimately, her family and friends told her that, if it was her dream, then she should pursue it. She didn’t know how to write a novel, but she says, “I started enjoying it more and more until about six months into writing this book, I decided to try and get it published.”
During this time, Arden hopped continents and jobs. As I mentioned, she began working as a macadamia nut farmer, but she also worked as a smoothie maker in Maui, then as a ski instructor in the French Alps. All along the way, no matter what she did or where she did it, she drafted. “When you’re working and writing at the same time,” she says, “you have to prioritize the writing, even if it’s hard.”
Eventually, she ended up back in Hawaii with a position at a real estate company, where she worked until she landed her first book deal three years after starting The Bear and the Nightingale.
“...And the rest is history,” she said.
Katherine’s advice to aspiring novelists is simply this: “If you just say, okay, today I'm going to write 200 words or 500 words and… every single day, hit your word count goal even if you're tired or cranky or stressed. Eventually, you will have a book.”
Studying a few authors and their various counts can show us the veracity in Katherine’s words. Hemingway’s was only around 500 a day. He once said, “I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well.” On the opposite end is Michael Crichton, who had been known for his huge daily word count of 10,000. Crichton believed we were all in a constant state of editing: “Books aren’t written - they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” Maya Angelou seemed to have a steady count of 2,500, pointing out that, “Nothing will work unless you do.” Choosing a specific count sets our minds up for a milestone that we are capable of reaching, instead of looking at the piece as an unattainable whole. Ultimately, the amount of words someone chooses to write in a day is going to depend on that writer’s perception of their philosophy or urgency. Are you steady and consistent? Relaxed and laid back? Or feverish and hurried?
It’s easy to become hung up on the idea of time and its passing. We feel as though everything needs to be done immediately. But some of the most beloved novels took years to complete. Gone with the Wind totaled ten hard years for Margaret Mitchell. She may not have taken her manuscript to be published if her friend, who could have been using reverse psychology to motivate Mitchell, hadn’t told her she couldn’t do it. The Lord of the Rings took Tolkien approximately 12 years to publish; without the encouragement of the Inklings, a literary society at Oxford, it may have been longer. For these authors, crafting these timeless masterpieces must have felt like an eternity.
As writers, engaging with like-minded individuals will also provide us with the community and support needed to achieve our aspirations. No one will understand the mechanisms of imagination required to world-build and create characters the way a fellow author will. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are two of the most famous examples of constructive writing companions. Lewis and Tolkien did not have to agree on every aspect of their writing to encourage one another in their artistry. Their respect for the each other’s talent was enough.
If Katherine had declined my request to interview her, or acted as if she hadn’t seen my message, I wouldn’t have blamed her. Authors are busy; that she has two upcoming deadlines speaks to that fact. Yet she agreed, and that is deeply affirming. Writers can put forth an effort to act as one community looking out for one another, supporting each other’s endeavors.
Dreams and aspirations are important because they’re the fuel that keeps the fire of creativity burning when there’s little else in the way of motivation. But determination and discipline, along with a strong support system, are the foundations that support a writer’s will to continue when inspiration starts to wane. Not all aspiring authors have the intrepidness to board the first flight to Hawaii to find inspiration for their next novel. Nor does everyone have the steadfast ability to handle the same desk view day in and day out. We all, however, do have the ability to manifest our writing if we work hard and long enough and believe in ourselves, and have others believe in us as well. Prioritize by setting tangible goals, by choosing to grasp ahold of opportunities to write in the midst of stressful schedules. Connect with fellow writers and be fearless in your pursuit of a community - encouraging the work of other’s, and seek encouragement for yourself. Finally, persist in the face of your situation and in spite the 'well-meaning' opinions of others.
Rebecca Cline is a journalism student and a video editor at a local news station. She lives in Texas with her husband, yellow lab, and black cat. She blogs about a variety of digital lifestyle topics, and is currently working on her first novel. You can find more of her work at her site, Blogging Becks.
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