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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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SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

28 responses to “When Patience Is Required”

  1. […] hope, the face-on-the-floor depression, and the hard work of creating a novel–right here at TNB. This week’s column features some words for impatient personality types stuck in a field that seems to be all […]

  2. Ditto the songwriter!

    Yeah, the “What have you written?” question…. lol

    Keep going! – Like you say, a writer writes… Period.

    Good for you, and never stop dreaming, it’s worth a lot more than any money you may or may not get!

    Jules

    • Hi Jules,

      So glad to have a songwriter here! I have a few interviews over at LitPark with songwriters – Candice Night and Ritchie Blackmore talking about writing songs outside the mainstream, Cameron McGill talking about the process of writing a song, FAWM talking about their songwriters program. But this one, I think might speak to you the most: http://litpark.com/2008/01/09/david-habbin-robin-lerner/ It’s a conversation with songwriter Robin Lerner (she wrote the words to Faith Hill’s This Kiss) and she talks about carrying around her notebook full of lyrics and everyone telling her the words she uses are too big for radio play. Maybe it will inspire you!

  3. Jude says:

    Congratulations on getting your first novel published. I’ll look out for it with interest. My own first poetry collection is being published about the same time and it’s amazing when these things actually happen. But it’s ages and ages before that happens, well, it has been a long time for me. I always wanted to a writer and always wrote all my life but this is the first book I am getting published. Jude

    • Thanks, Jude. And same to you!

      I know the story of Stephanie Meyers never having written before, waking up from a dream about vampires, and 6 months later, finishing a book and selling it for a million dollars, or whatever, but most of the stories of published writers look more like ours. It’s just writing and editing and collecting those rejection letters and writing some more and finding ways to battle the sense of hopelessness enough to keep going.

      When your book is available, be sure to announce it over here.

  4. I love the focus on movement, moving forward, doing what needs to be done (write).

  5. Billy Bones says:

    Patience: the lesson the man who types up my stories must learn anew everyday.

  6. A question I have asked myself many times over the years: If I stopped writing what would I do? If I can’t come up with an answer that will occupy, satisfy or terrify then I get back to work. Pen to paper or finger pads on a keyboard I’ll continue to write even if I’m the only reader. For the rest of my life, I realize that there is simply no other choice.

    • Yeah, I found the best way to test yourself about whether it’s worth it to be a writer is to say, Okay, What if I quit? What if I never write again? What if I toss this manuscript I’ve worked on for the past three years? If you can do that and find your life improves, then you’re better off not writing. If the thought of doing that feels like cutting out your heart or throwing away a child, then you toughen up to the rejection and the waiting, and pick up the pen and keep going.

  7. Tony DuShane says:

    replying to your question here from another thread:

    my book is out feb. 1st.

    and then…..

    writers have always told me the second book is the hardest to get published b/c they look at the numbers on your first book and if it doesn’t hit it out of the park….yadda, yadda. we’re stuck in a numbers game.

    and if it gets harder than this, i’m going to lose my mind, more than i’ve already have.

    i haven’t read it in 15 years, but there’s a book called ‘hunger’ by knut hamsun, that really affected me. partly b/c i’m 1/2 norwegian and i finally understood grandpa and mom and these toeheaded blood cells who can’t play with the italians too well…and partly b/c of my manic obsession to become a writer.

    what’s crazy is i actually thought i was a writer 15 years ago, now i feel like less of one, but people give me money for it and i have the novel coming out. i feel like i’m on the playground, but i got picked last for kickball and i made it to first base once.

    i’ve also heard you don’t hit your stride until your fourth novel. i don’t know who said that or haven’t really thought about applying it to a writer i enjoy, i’ll have to give it a whirl.

    then all these damn writers like celine who hits it out of the park on #1, and audrey niffeninen.nen.nen.ger, who slices open my heart with time travelers wife, and her fearful symmetry gives me a shrug of ….that was cool —> i think i read that… (oh poor audrey, count that money, get that film option, keep writing)…

    then kerouac hits it with #2.

    but, a huge lesson i’ve learned…don’t tell your family or non-writing friends of any aspirations of this writing game…they don’t understand how slow it goes….next time i’m saying, yes grandma/auntie/bartender friend, i’m a journalist and this one’s a fluke. oops, another fluke. oops, don’t know how that happened. is that my novel, oh sure, it makes me millions, it’s easy, i had an idea and boom, i’ve been counting my money ever since…..i know you have an idea for a story, you’ve been telling me the same idea for the last 15 years when i said i’m a writer…boy, was that a mistake, no, not your story, sounds brilliant. really? thanks for letting me use the idea. i’ll give you 20% of all the proceeds that naturally come with ideas.

    congrads on your novel as well.

    i’ll see you in the secret novelists’ clubhouse soon. i hear they take the marshmallows out of lucky charms and put it in bowls. their calorie free and tom waits takes our drink orders…but it doesn’t matter what you tell him, he always comes back with irish whiskey.

  8. Susan Henderson says:

    I’m a good bit Norwegian, too, and I’ll look for that book, HUNGER, but I’m even more interested in yours.

    Yes, I’ve heard all the horror stories about how a new book has only 2 or 3 weeks to start flying off the shelves or they shred the books in the B&N basement. I want to see a TNB post from you that opens with that kickball line… it’s awesome and awful and true.

    I’m very much looking forward to the secret Irish whisky club. I hope, and same with heaven, that someone didn’t make all of that up!

    (P.S. Fearful Symmetry was so bad, I was almost in shock. Love the first 5 or 7 chapters, though. Still, good for her for the advance she got. It will allow her to slow down and get the next book just right.)

    • Tony DuShane says:

      there are always those books that have legs. i love the ‘house of leaves’ success story. it took me three years before i read that book….at the constant “did you read that book yet” from my friend in LA….then, i was assigned to interview danielewski for his second book, so i thought i’d give the first book a read through and DAMN….it’s clever AND good. clever usually scares me. he still sells about 20k books a year. (second book, not so good. not too bad, but you can’t follow anything with ‘house of leaves’.)

      re: secret whiskey club, that’s what i’ve heard. i won’t know until feb. 1st and supposedly i can’t tell you until your book comes out. šŸ˜‰

      yeah, you’ll probably see a bit of my comment in a post….i woke up five minutes before reading and commenting.

      you have good lead time on your book. need any help on my end, let me know.

      • Susan Henderson says:

        That’s nice of you. I’ll take any help at all, but first, I have to nail this last set of edits.

        Just looked up your book and the cover’s cool!

  9. Rachel Pollon says:

    That’s a nice shot of inspiring, Susan! I like reading your potent, kick in the pants pieces. And am very much looking forward to the novel.

    • Susan Henderson says:

      So glad if you’re inspired! I’m trying my best with this TNB series to show the roadmap (if there is one) or, at the very least, to show how that road to getting a book deal may very well look like constant failure and discouragement until the eleventh hour, so don’t give up.

  10. Marni Grossman says:

    Oh, Susan, this all rings so true.

    “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.”

    These are some of the reasons I shy away from calling myself a writer. I’m too insecure in my own work to own the title and, without outside validation…

    • Susan Henderson says:

      I was at the Squaw Valley writers’ retreat this summer, and every hotshot writer you’ve ever heard of said this very same thing. Which means you’re definitely a writer.

      P.S. I saw you read this summer with your mom in the audience, and it was brilliant and adorable.

  11. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Patience is one important writerly quality. Perseverance is another. You wouldn’t be where you are–with a forthcoming book awaited by so many–if you hadn’t done the hard work and kept going. Congratulations, Susan!

    • Susan Henderson says:

      I’d say perseverance is the most important of all. And constantly reading good books to sharpen your ear is probably second.

  12. Hal Ackerman says:

    My impatience is manifest in sending stuff out in the initial throes of completion, when my sense of its perfection is yet unmarred by the annoying intrusion of reality that comes from reading it.

    I’m breaking my maiden, as horseplayers say. My first novelĀ comes out in July. Good luck to us all.

  13. lance says:

    my fear is that by the time I make it to the whiskey grotto I will have lost my taste for the stuff.

  14. christopher says:

    Hi,

    I am a writer but am an extrovert as well as a big time reader. I do not like to spend my precious limited time on the internet writing in these social platforms. I am more of an old school Socratic character who needs to move around and interact with real humans in real time. I am stuck in a new world of sedentary technophiles. Any suggestions?

    Christopher

  15. Ade says:

    No doubt the reference was to Sally Heckel’s sueprb film version of A Jury of Her Peers . If you go to the Links page of this site, under Member Sites, Resources, Publications you’ll see two links, one to Sally’s web site which describes the film, and another to Women Make Movies, which distributes the DVD you or your school can purchase it from there. I’ve used it many times in class and students invariably get a lot out of it.

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