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Just Keep Swimming


Writing a book is tough.

Not only is it tough, but it’s time consuming and messy. I’m constantly rearranging my book’s guts. Moving its body parts here and there and back again.

Some days I sit in front of my computer screen staring at the blinking cursor for hours and only have one paragraph to show for it. Some days I write rows of gibberish and pages of nonsense I can barely stand to go back and read.

The most twisted thing about writing a book is that there is no guarantee that all of those hours of soul scraping working and re-working will ever amount to anything. I’ve heard ghastly stories about trying to get published that make me want to toss my laptop in the ocean before I waste another minute writing one more word. However, scattered among those horror stories lay little gems of hope. They only come around every once in a while, and I cling to them like thistles on a sock.



The first one is written by the prolific Malcolm Gladwell, titled “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” A co-worker of mine at the Santa Barbara Independent first shared it with me after reading it in an issue of the New Yorker. Gladwell argues that society tends to support talented individuals in the arts who reach their most productive years at a young age, prodigies like Picasso, to the detriment of those “late bloomers” such as french painter, Cezanne. To illustrate this point, Gladwell focuses on the contemporary career of a lawyer turned fiction-writer, Ben Fountain. In the article, Gladwell outlines Fountain’s rise to success:

“He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking.” It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional best-seller lists, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le Carré.”

Gladwell goes on to say that while it sounds like Fountain rose to stardom overnight, his success was actually a long time coming:

“He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.”

This was good news. I was relieved to learn of Fountain’s struggle. Happy even. Which might make me a horrible person, I’m not sure, but I’ve read Gladwell’s article at least twenty times since, whenever I’ve been disheartened. Just a few weeks ago I stumbled upon another gem, and this one was straight from the author’s mouth. If Ben Fountain didn’t ring any bells for you (I admit I had not heard of his work prior to reading the article), this next writer cannot be mistaken. Kathryn Stockett, author of New York Times best-seller and now Hollywood blockbuster, The Help, revealed her secret to success in an article she wrote for MORE Magazine:

“If you ask my husband my best trait, he’ll smile and say, “She never gives up.” But if you ask him my worst trait, he’ll get a funny tic in his cheek, narrow his eyes and hiss, “She. Never. Gives. Up.””



Stockett goes on to explain that she received 60 rejection letters before her now famous novel was accepted by an agent. She talks about “slothing around that racetrack of self-pity—you know the one, from sofa to chair to bed to refrigerator, starting over again on the sofa.”

Again, this made me very happy to read. If I ever meet Stockett in person, I will run up to her and give her a big fat kiss on the cheek. I will always think of her when I am at the bottom of the motivation barrel, grasping at straws for a reason to go on. I will recall her closing words:

“I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript-or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]-in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.”

She captures the essence of why we should write: because we must. Because we are compelled to do it by some unnamed obssesive voice, that drives us crazy at times, but if obeyed with tenacity will lead somewhere in the end.





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