Digital art by Mihaela Limberea.
One of my early digital artworks.

As a writer, as an artist in any field, in fact, you need stamina. Endurance. Grit. Persistence. The equivalent of Rule #1 in Zombieland: cardio. Cardio for the brain. 

Laboring day after day, alone, with no other guidance than the vision in your head, takes its toll. You waver. You stumble and fall. You lose your way (even Dante needed a guide).

Self-doubt sets in. “Am I really doing the right thing? Should I have gone a different way? What if I fail? Is this good enough?” The inner critic gains on you; you start losing yourself, overwhelmed by his incessant, malicious chatter.

Patience wears thin. You look at the few lines you wrote and imagine the unfathomable amount of time it’ll take to stretch it in a book. A whole book. How would you ever get there? You can’t imagine it anymore.

Distractions attack your focus. You mean to check a synonym, and half an hour is gone, without a synonym to show for it. (But on the other hand, you know a lot more about the mating rituals of penguins).

Yet, somehow, you have to keep going. Keep working, keep realizing the vision in your head, despite, at times, crippling self-doubt, constant restlessness, and distractions.

How do you do that? How do you keep going when you feel you’ve spent yourself, and you don’t have anything left to give? When you can’t imagine writing one more paragraph, let alone a whole page or a whole chapter? 

Simple. Small steps. 

Forget the goal (a whole book!), just focus on the task for the day. Writing 500 words. Or 1,000. Then forget them as well. 

Write one sentence. Just one. Then the next one. Then the next one.

Don’t think, just write. One word at a time. Pebble by pebble by pebble, as Donna Tartt says*.

Successful writers are the ones who keep working, not the ones who have talent or write beautiful sentences. Yes, there may be more talented writers, and yes, some may write better than you. But this means nothing if they don’t persevere and actually finish the project. What matters, in the end, is the end result. 

So, you write one word, and another one, and another one. Day after day after day. There’s no other way.


* It is just pebble by pebble by pebble by pebble. I write one sentence until I am happy with it until I go on to the next one and write that one until I am happy with it. And I look at my paragraph and if I am not happy with that I’ll write the paragraph until I’m happy with it and then I go on this way. And, of course, even writing this very slow way, one does have to go back. One does start off on the wrong foot sometimes and a whole scene has to be chopped and you have to start over again. Generally, you know that pretty quickly though. You realize you have painted yourself into a corner and you think, “Okay I am just going to trace my footsteps back to the last solid bit of ground that I know. Look around start again and take a different tack.” It’s the way that William Styron writes and he said, when he was about my age, that he realized that he had maybe four or five books in him—the way that he worked—and he said he was fine with that. I’m fine with that too. It’s okay by me.Donna Tartt


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