If there is one thing that every successful writer shares, it’s resolve. You could also call it commitment or determination or perseverance, but sometimes you just need to call it resolve, because there is often a kind of doggedness to it – a totally refusal to give up no matter what.
I have the great good fortune of working every day with writers who have resolve, and they constantly inspire me. Everyone I work with is equally awesome in their own unique way, but today, I wanted to share three recent stories that illustrate what resolve looks like in a writer. These stories feature three women who are each overcoming a roadblock that would beat down most of the rest of us.
The first story is about writing despite having no home base.
Emma is a woman who is never in the same place more than a few weeks at a time. She travels around the world from place to place on an incredible adventure that has to do with the America’s Cup sailing races, and the Olympic sailing team’s preparation for Rio. She has a deadline with me every two weeks, and she is almost never in the same place twice. She Skype’s in from New Zealand, San Francisco, Portugal, Bermuda, England -- a different country, and oftentimes a different continent, every few weeks.
She takes her laptop and her books and her “story board” with her, setting up shop in the corners of the Airbnb houses she rents in each place.
Up top is a picture of her workspace in a hotel in Sweden. Below are pictures of her workspaces in a rented house in San Francisco and another in Rio de Janiero. For a recent move to Bermuda, she had to ship the entire contents of a house by container. Within days of her arrival, she sent this photo of her writing spot – confirmation that nothing is going to stop her forward progress.
Emma is two chapters away from finishing her manuscript. In a year where she has logged more miles than I will probably log in my entire life, she has written a book. It’s very inspiring.
And for a sneak peek into what inspires HER, here are some pictures of the children Emma is writing about at a school in Uganda where she has launched a scholarship program to help orphans complete secondary school.
The second story is about writing despite being desperately ill.
Shannon is a mother of two little kids who was diagnosed with a cancer on her lip that required the removal of the entire lip, which required many plastic surgeries, among other procedures. I was so blown away that she kept writing through this ordeal, and asked her some questions about that experience.
Q: You were on track to get to the finish line of your book. You had a complete rough draft and were just about to tackle a revision when something unexpected and horrible disrupted your life. What were your initial thoughts about your book? Did you even THINK about your book when all the trauma hit?
A: I did think about the book and the deadline we had set up for my final manuscript read. I think about that deadline whenever a disruption happens in our life – like my husband has to travel out of town for work or one of the kids get sick. I am a person who works better under the gun but there is a certain amount of stress that comes with that. My big job is being a mom so I fight for my hours to write and disruptions can be tough. When this big and unexpected trauma happened in my life, I was a little more than half way through my final manuscript re-write. I didn’t think about the book immediately but once the dust settled and I realized I had a long recovery in my future, the book was on my mind.
There was a great story I was told in acting school about a famous French actor who wailed and fell to the floor when he received news of his mother’s death. Even while he was doing this there was a part of his brain thinking I must remember this reaction when I play a scene of grief. It’s a little bit sicko but I think actors do that and I find myself doing that as a novice writer too. The book is in the back of my mind at all times- events in life sort of jog my memory about moments in the book and make things more specific.
Q: What made you decide to keep working on the revision rather than just...stop. There are so many hours in the day. Why spend hours on this when you have other pressing concerns?
A: I’ve made a discovery that when I write over a period of successive days -- say I string three or four days together -- regardless of whether I think the writing is good or whether you give me good feed back, my mood is lifted. My schedule as a mom basically allows for one hour while the kids are at school and one hour after they are asleep. If I stick to this two hour a day regiment I feel happier. My situation right now is depressing and I do need time to focus on getting better but I also know that staying creative will be a big component in keeping my mood up. Again I learned this as an actress, especially when I was starting out and trying to find work. I made a deal with myself to do two things a day to further my career. For example, back then I might have worked on a scene for acting class and then sent out a few headshots to casting agents. I found that doing these two things made me happier and I felt more in control of a completely uncontrollable situation.
So I’ve taken on an “I’ll be dammed if I stop now” attitude because I know the writing will make me happier and also because I’ve come so far with the book that I’ll be dammed if anything will stop me now.
Q: You said you reached a kind of flow in your work. Can you describe what that felt like?
A: Not to be a total kiss ass (ha ha) but I think the flow came from you giving me copious notes in my chapter drafts and pinpointing what the book was about, always bringing me back to the real reason I was writing the piece in the first place. Once I understood that clearly, it all fell into place. It was very easy to see the big picture and carrying on the point from chapter to chapter became like a puzzle where all the pieces would fall easily into place. A lot of the chapters required huge rewrites but even through that kind of hard work, it never felt like I was muscling it. Nothing has felt blocked so far. As for the end result, who knows? Only my husband has read the finished chapters so far and he tends to be a little bit biased in my favor.
Q: How was that different from what you were experiencing in your own life? Was it aligned in any way? A counterpoint? A rescue valve? I guess I'm trying to get at the relationship between... what? Chaos and pain and creativity? Or chaos and pain and the power of narrative?
A: Actually I’m not sure yet if there is any connection between the chaos of what I am experiencing now and the book. In my head they are two different things. And because my book is a memoir from a specific time in my life they are two different time periods. The feelings of pain and despair and loss will definitely be easier to access when I’m in the rewrite. The writing will be a rescue valve and down the line I will have an interesting story to tell. But right now they are separate. I’m still so “in” this that I’m not sure of it’s point. And I guess that’s a huge lesson about narrative -- even though you are in the midst of drama that is interesting and sad and even funny at times, if you don’t have a specific way to tell it, a point of view on it, it won’t be your story. But you taught me that.
Q: How did your goal for your book shift at all during this time, if it did. Did it change? Morph? Deepen? Get focused?
A: Nothing changed except that I may have gotten even more resolved to get it done. And because I lost a lot of time with appointments I asked you for a month extension! [Note from Jennie: Shannon asked for a second month extension. But her new deadline happens to be Halloween. And guess what? She’s making it this time. I never had any doubt….]
Q What did the people around you think of your spending time on your book in the midst of everything else? Did you ever talk to any of them about it?
A: My husband is my biggest cheerleader. We met on a show as actors and when I stopped to become a full time mom he knew the loss I would experience creatively. He also knows I am happier with a creative outlet and have been so happy since I discovered I loved to write. He is all encouragement. Sometimes right now he’ll even push me a little too hard and I’ll have to tell him I need to rest.
Even before this happened I’ve had the odd girlfriend who has asked, “Are you still working on that?” It’s usually when I say I can’t go to lunch or something and I have to write. But other than that I’ve been hiding out a bit at the moment so I haven’t talked to many people about my writing lately.
Q: After the initial bad event, even WORSE things happened to you with the lip that demanded even more time and effort and energy and yet you STILL didn't stop writing. Why not?
A: Part of it is what I said before- that I know being creative lifts my mood. And perhaps it’s also a little vanity and ego. That a part of me feels like being a mom is not enough. And even though I have no idea if anything will ever happen with my writing, it gives me something else -- an extra sense of self. That may not be healthy but it does propel me to write and the writing makes me happy -- so I don’t analyze it too much. I also know that I don’t want to be defined by the bad things that have happened in my life. I don’t want my sense of self to come from that.
Q: Sometimes writers let even small disruptions halt their forward progress. Why do you think that didn't happen to you? What advise can you give other writers facing disruptive events?
A: I think the reason the disruption didn’t hold me back too much was because of my history as an actress. It was so hard to get work that absolutely nothing could get in your way. We just had to work through everything. When there was an opportunity you had to jump -- whether you were sick or had to cut a vacation short, or severely down in the dumps. Everything would have to be dropped and you’d have to be ready for the audition.
As for advice, I would say to set aside time for short work sessions every day no matter what is going on. Use a timer and commit to writing a half hour twice a day or an hour twice a day. Just write during that time. Just do it. You don’t even have to read your work back. But also realize that writing every single day will probably be impossible even though you shoot for it every day. Everyone is different- but I find the simple “doing” of the writing will work wonders. You can still deal with the disruptive event – the small time away won’t hurt -- but as time passes you’ll look back and be surprised by how much writing you’ve accomplished and that will make you feel fulfilled and add to your happiness. More happiness will aid in recovery of whatever it is you are going through. I hope I don’t sound preachy but that really works for me
The last story is about money and about relationship and about how sometimes the people we loved don’t understand how much our writing means to us, and how we keep writing regardless.
This is an email written by a client in response to the post I wrote last week about how so many of my clients come from a place of privilege.
“Your Friday blog was meaningful for me, connecting is one of my goals. I worry about missing the mark. I did giggle at your statement in regard to coaching “privileged” individuals. Just want to note: I’m not one of them. I wish. I teach 7 days a week (and am happy about it, I love my work), to pay bills and support what my husband calls my “hobby.” He has never really gotten the why of my writing. He tolerates it, but never asks about it. He has read only 1 of the 5 stories I’ve had published. I tell him when an acceptance comes in, and his response is to ask what I am getting paid. When I got a Pushcart nomination last year, he wanted to know what it did for me, money-wise. In 8 years, I’ve earned $100 from my writing. And I thought I’d died and landed in heaven when the check arrived. My husband was not impressed.
He knows I pay for classes, and workshops, and every so often, he makes a remarks how that money should go to our retirement fund. If he knew the true cost of working with you he wouldn’t be happy. I haven’t told him the complete truth. I am piecing the money together from my earnings, and I added more students when I made the decision to work with you. He and I have been together a long time, and the relationship is good. My writing is the one thing he just doesn’t get. If I were paid, he’d have a different attitude. So when you work with me, you will be working with writer firmly stuck in the middle-class, who will be grateful beyond imagination for your expertise.”
I thought this email was incredibly brave and beautiful – and I am certain that this writer is going to find deep satisfaction in her work. I know I am going to find deep satisfaction in serving her.
If you’re having a hard time getting your work done because of money or illness or having no space or some other roadblock, channel these stories and see if you can find the resolve to keep writing forward.
Writing books is hard work, but you can do it. I witness that truth every day