I’ve written a couple posts before about the similarities between writing and running (here and here). I’ve been thinking about it more lately. I haven’t been able to run for the past few months and, whereas this is something that used to torment me before, it doesn’t bother me now. I plan to be a lifelong runner, so I’m focused on the big picture. I accept there will be phases of not running due to illness, injury, lack of time, etc. If it takes me months to get back to running shape, so be it. I’m in no hurry.
In a way, writing is similar. When I was in my early twenties, I thought I had to be successful right away. I remember telling my first agent that I was going to quit my day job and focus on writing and she looked horrified. “Keep your day job,” she said. Young and naive, I was offended, thinking she didn’t have faith in me. But, really, she’d been around long enough to know that writing rarely leads to immediate success (and money). You have to be in it for the long haul (with a day job to fund the journey).
In the March/April issue of Poets & Writers, Kevin Wilson writes about this in “The necessity of failure”:
When I was twenty-three years old, I felt that if I didn’t have a book deal by the time I was twenty-five, I would be a failure. And if I couldn’t place a story in the New Yorker, what was the point? I wanted to find a wide readership immediately. I think this was partly my own intensity, my mania, but I also think culture suggests that this is the way things work. In the world of writing we’re constantly told that you need to find an agent, the implication being that nothing good will ever come of your writing if you don’t find an agent. We’re told that if your first book doesn’t sell well, you’ll probably never get another chance, because the book world is run by sales numbers and there’s less interest in growing a writer’s career. We’re told that you need publications to be taken seriously. And that’s fine; I think it’s good for writers to have some sense of the business behind writing. But the real focus should be on the writing itself.
This is so true. While I think it’s great to have goals in the business of writing, it’s more important to focus on the pure love of writing. It’s a lifelong craft. Just like I’ll always be a runner (well, body permitting), I will always be a writer. There is a peace that comes from trusting in that.
Wilson goes on:
Writing is not a finite thing that ends when you turn thirty or forty or fifty or sixty. With any luck, if you care about writing, it’s a lifetime pursuit. And, yes, it would be better to publish your first novel when you’re forty, as opposed to when you’re ninety, but the truth is, there is no single moment that defines us as writers. We write. Sometimes it’s good. Most times it’s not. As Samuel Beckett put it: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ That’s all I want out of my artistic life. To fail better than the last time.
If I had any advice for a new writer, it would be: Focus on the journey, not the achievements. Granted, if someone said this to me when I was 20, I would have rolled my eyes. That’s the thing about perspective–it turns you into that person your younger self dismissed.
(By the way, if you haven’t read Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, I highly recommend it).