On Tenacity and The Positive Side of Doubt

Tenacity is the key to success as a writer. This has become my mantra, the phrase I repeat to my writer friends, critique partners and anyone else who’ll listen. Tenacity is the key to success in anything.

I’ve heard too many stories of talented writers who stop after a single rejection slip — or maybe after a hundred. It doesn’t matter how many it took — what matters is that they stopped.

Don’t stop. Writing is not easy. Publishing your work is a nightmare. You’ll get beaten down. You’ll think you’re shit. You’ll probably cry. You’ll think it will never happen for you.

Go ahead and think these things — we all do — but DON’T STOP!

I’ve come across three thoughtful essays in the past two days that truly spoke to me on doubts and tenacity.

Octavia Butler’s “Positive Obsession”

I just read this essay in Butler’s collection, “Bloodchild.” Her standpoint is from being the only Black woman in her field at the time, but I think it speaks on a broader level, to all writers who doubt their talent.

“You’re supposed to know you’re as good as anyone. And if you don’t know, you aren’t supposed to admit it. If anyone near you admits it, you’re supposed to reassure them quickly so they’ll shut up. That sort of talk is embarrassing. Act tough and confident and don’t talk about your doubts. If you never deal with them, you may never get rid of them, but no matter. Fake everyone out. Even yourself.

I couldn’t fake myself out. I didn’t talk much about my doubts. I wasn’t fishing for hasty assurances. But I did a lot of thinking – the same things over and over.

Who was I anyway? Why should anyone pay attention to what I had to say? Did I have anything to say? I was writing science fiction and fantasy, for God’s sake. At that time nearly all professional science-fiction writers were white men. As much as I loved science fiction and fantasy, what was I doing?

Well, whatever it was, I couldn’t stop. Positive obsession is about not being able to stop just because you’re afraid and full of doubts. Positive obsession is dangerous. It’s about not being able to stop at all.”

Eugene Cross, “A Powerful Sort of Doubt (Click link for full article)

I saw this on Google+ today, and it reminded me of John Cleese’s quote on why stupid people don’t know they’re stupid. Eugene discusses the tone deaf singers on American Idol, who appear completely confident they’re the next big thing. Read the whole essay (it’s not long) because there’s good stuff there.

“That confidence, that complete lack of doubt, shows a lack of talent. Those singers are so confident because they don’t have a musical ear. They can’t tell that they’re tone-deaf, that they don’t have the talent for song (or else they’re just looking for their fifteen minutes.) They are devoid of doubt and consumed by confidence because they can’t hear how the song should be or can be sung. And so when we as writers doubt our own work, it’s because we realize that it is not yet where we want it to be. And so we keep trying, keep at it, over and over and over again. We collect our rejection slips. We revise the same sentence dozens of times. We read our work aloud and torture our thesauruses and slam our heads against the wall, until we get it right. Because we know we can. Because we know it can be better. I can’t thank Bausch enough for teaching me this, for taking something that keeps so many of us away from the page and explaining it for what it is, a positive sign that the work we have chosen as our life’s calling is actually the work we were meant to do.”

Ira Glass, “The Gap”

I’ve seen a pretty poster version of this quote floating around the interwebz for years. Every time I see it, I scream “YES!” in my head and do a little happy dance. I wish someone had shown this to me when I was younger. I’ve always been a perfectionist who gave up when doubts surfaced, when frustration took over, when I realized I wasn’t as good as the people I admired. I wish I had stuck with it. But I get it now, and I won’t stop.

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

So there it is. Be positively obsessed with your writing (or whatever it is that you do…this advice is good for any creative endeavor). Be so obsessed that no amount of rejection will stop you. Embrace your doubts. They are the fuel that will make you burn brighter. And mind the gap. It’s gonna take awhile, you just gotta fight your way through.

4 thoughts on “On Tenacity and The Positive Side of Doubt

  1. Scott Carpenter says:

    By the way — thanks for this post. It’s very helpful for me to learn and re-learn this stuff. I have all that doubt and not so much the tenacity. I’m reading a book about habits right now that talks about the role of craving in our habits. I crave the attention of having my work read, but I’m seeing how I’ll really need to make the craving be for the words themselves. All good writing teachers talk about this, how the writing has to be the reward, but I’m seeing it in the new light of what I’m reading about habit formation, and it seems more likely that I’ll continue writing for the writing’s sake than for the fickle attention of readers.

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