We’re taught to be tenacious and persistent and never give up. And it’s true that, barring beginner’s luck, those who succeed are those who don’t give up. I can also guarantee that if you give up before you succeed, you will never succeed. Samuel Butler, an English poet in the 1600′s, said, “Everyone has a mass of bad work in him which he will have to work off and get rid of before he can do better; and, indeed, the more lasting a man’s ultimate work, the more sure he is to pass through a time, and perhaps a very long one, in which there seems to be very little hope for him.” That’s where tenacity comes in.
Interviewers often ask writers, “What piece of advice would you give to beginning writers?” Writers often answer, “Keep writing. Don’t give up.” When we read about famous writers and the number of rejection letters they received, we’re encouraged to keep on keeping on. I recently read a short article in remembrance of Donald J. Sobol, author of the Encyclopedia Brown series, who died in 2012. His first book was rejected by more than 20 publishers before it finally sold. In his talks to writers, he encouraged them never to give up.
Julian Fellowes, writer of the Downton Abbey series, was interviewed in the February issue of The Writer magazine. When asked what qualities a successful writer needs, he answered, “Actually, tenacity is the quality that you cannot do without. . . . I’ve known very talented people who do badly, and I’ve known not very talented people who do well . . . The one quality that all the ones who do well have is tenacity. They just don’t give in, and they keep plugging away.”
But is there a time to let go? Is quit a dirty word? There’s an old cowboy proverb: “When your horse dies, get off.” Not a bad piece of advice. When my older son was learning to water ski, we forgot to give him one crucial instruction: When you fall, let go. His first time up, he fell and hung on. As he was being dragged through the water with his head submerged, we in the boat were yelling, “Let go! Let go! Let go!” He did.
Sometimes it takes more courage to quit than to carry on. You have to be bold to face your own disappointment as well as the criticism (real or perceived) that others level at you. It’s hard to turn around and go back to “the road not taken.” But the word quit comes from the Latin quietus, which – yes – means, “quiet, at rest.” Sometimes that’s what we need. Solomon said, “There is a time for everything . . . a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away . . .” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 6). There can be a time to quit.
So how do you know when that time is? Specifically for a writer: How do you know you’re on a dead horse? I just read Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. She suggests that people who want to write should sit at their keyboards for an hour a day and write. Do not get up. If no ideas come, sit there until you have an idea or the hour is up. Do this the next day and the next day and the next day, for as long as it takes to start writing. I say that if you can do this, then you’ve got a chance. Keep going and see what happens. If you can’t do what Patchett suggests, then look around and see if realistically there’s a better, more productive and satisfying path.
It’s a personal decision everyone has to weigh: Do I keep on, or do I quit? Better yet, ask, “Do I keep on, or do I transition?” Quit suggests a cessation of movement. Transition suggests continued movement. So do you keep on, or do you transition? They’re both valid choices, and choices only you can make. Either way, quiet rest, at least for a while, is not a bad thing.
Happy Reading, Happy Writing, Happy Life!
(P.S. No, I’m not quitting writing. Or transitioning. But I do struggle with the option every day.)
© 2013 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com