I have a reputation among my writing colleagues as someone with a lot of patience. Which is weird because I spend more time with myself than I do with anyone else  and I don’t think I’m particularly patient with myself. It’s something I’m working on. And (again, ironically) one of the things that helps me to be patient with myself is being patient with others. Just as I don’t think I would have gotten so far in my novels and stories except by coaching other people in their writing; so too, I don’t think I would be patient with myself at all unless I had learned by practicing on other people.
Circumstances are a lot easier to see when they center on someone else. Same way I feel like a less-racist Bobby Fischer when someone else is playing chess but when I’m sitting on one side of the board, I hang pieces left and right.
The patience pays off, though. And it’s made me a better writer. Also a better piano player. And a better friend. But let’s focus on the writing for a moment.
I don’t think writing is a uniquely difficult discipline. Anything you try to do will take talent, skill, and above all patience. Writing is no exception in either direction. It’s hard to write well. But I suspect it’s no more difficult than any other discipline like being a lawyer or truck driver or concert pianist. They all have their unique challenges.
But again. We’re not here to talk about all of that stuff. We’re here to talk about writing. And I do think that patience is the key to being a good writer. For a lot of reasons
Patience and Revision
Most people don’t knock it out of the park on their first draft. And let’s say you write a really damn good first draft. In some ways, it’s harder to edit a good first draft than a bad one. On a bad draft, you know you have to throw away half of the words and maybe even half of the argument. You know what you’ve written is just a first pass. You finish the draft with the expectation that you’ll take a deep breath, maybe have a cup of tea, and start murdering your draft.
But what about when you write something that’s actually working? You might get attached to a particularly well-phrased piece. You might not see the mistakes; the places that need more explanation; the places that don’t quite connect. Worst of all is when you write something that reads fairly well but has some fundamental flaw. Some bit of mishandled evidence. Or some bit of argument that just doesn’t quite work. I’ve never performed surgery on a body but I have torn apart an essay I’ve written because the structure is off and it’s a tiring, frustrating process. I hate it.
So why do I do it?
Not Just Patience; Joy
Because there’s something I want at the other end. And in a sense there’s something I want right then. I… like writing. With all that it entails.
It’s difficult and frustrating to rip apart an essay and put it back together. But there’s a certain satisfaction to doing it. And getting to the end? Feeling the thrill of the finished piece? Yeah. I like that, too. Does that mean every moment I’m writing is bliss? Far from it. Some days I’m too emotionally drained to write. So logically we can assume that writing takes a lot out of me. It’s not restorative and pleasant like taking a walk or picking up my younger relatives and throwing them into the air.
It’s difficult and frustrating to rip apart an essay and put it back together. But there’s a certain satisfaction to doing it. And getting to the end? Feeling the thrill of the finished piece? Yeah. I like that, too. Does that mean every moment I’m writing is bliss? Far from it.
And that’s always been my advice to people. Do what you find meaning in. Especially if you’re choosing a hobby/avocation. Don’t pick something you think you should do like writing or lifting weights or volunteering for some random cause. There are ways to give back and ways to find meaning. Find yours. It’s always easier to build patience on a foundation of love. That’s why your kids are adorable and those other kids are a goddamn menace. Or why your misdemeanors are the understandable consequence of you being in a tight spot and other people’s misdemeanors are the unacceptable consequence of inadequate law enforcement.
Different Kinds of Activities; Same Kind of Patience
Patience is related to love. It’s also related to acceptance. It’s a settled fact that if you fight against your reality, you’ll just end up hurting worse. It sucks. But it’s true.
I’ve noticed an odd property about getting seriously into an activity. Whether it’s running, practicing piano, or writing. No matter what, eventually I’m going to have a little voice in my head telling me: Don’t bother. It’s not worth it. You can pick it up tomorrow. Making matters more complicated: sometimes that’s the right move. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is not write that day. Not try to force it. Not spend hours and hours making yourself miserable just to move the cursor a few inches. But sometimes that’s exactly what you need to get out of a slump. It’s a judgment call.
The point is that, at the end of the day, my ability to move that cursor forward, whether it’s in a story or essay, is a direct function of my ability to tell myself: It’s okay. You’re doing fine. It always feels like this at first. I’m not proud to admit that I require this kind of self-pep-talk to get through a piece of writing. But neither am I ashamed. Especially because I know I’m not the only one.
Patience is Understanding
In a way, patience is understanding and understanding is patience. Think of it. If you don’t know when a thing will end, you might fidget and pace and look up from your book or phone. You don’t have a sense of what to expect, so your brain is firing on more cylinders than otherwise. But if you know what to expect you won’t fret. If you’re waiting for a doctor’s appointment and you know it’ll be exactly an hour, you may not like it, but you bring something to do and pass the time. But if they tell you it’ll be fifteen minutes and it ends up being an hour? Or if they don’t tell you how long and it ends up being an hour? That time will pass at a crawl.
The same goes with anything else. If you expect to write something quickly and it takes hours longer than you intended, you’ll be more likely to give up in disgust and frustration. That’s why a lot of my internal monologue when I write involves self-soothing. I know what to expect. But I still have to remind myself. Not to get frustrated. Not to give up.
I think it’s because writing, for me, is on the edge between what I understand and what I do not. I don’t know how my writing process works. Not fully. I may know why I get writer’s block. But I don’t know when it’ll happen. And when it does, I don’t know how long it’ll last. Nevertheless, I know that I have all of these unknowns. And I know I’ll get through them. Because I’ve done it before. And yet in the moment, it’s easy to succumb to the uncertainty and frustration. Not least because… well… I’ve done that before, too.
Patience is understanding and understanding is patience.
“I Don’t Know How to Write Stories”
One of the things I encounter all the time is writers who can turn out an essay, but who say: I don’t know how to write stories. It’s almost always that. Stories. Sometimes: I don’t know how to write poetry. But usually stories. At least in my earshot. I think that’s because writing stories isn’t taught in schools. Which is a shame. But beside the point.
Back to the idea that patience is understanding. So people who lack understanding of their own limitations (or who are unable to hold that understanding in their mind’s eye) experience frustration instead of acceptance.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a lot of the frustration with writing a story comes from thinking you should know how to write one just because you’ve read them. But that’s not how things necessarily work. Bad analogy time! You may have eaten a souffle or watched a movie; does that mean you know how to make one? Okay, let’s say you got an instruction manual.A cookbook. Or a copy of Save the Cat. Let’s say you’ve even been behind the scenes and watched a professional at work. Would your first attempt at following the instructions be a knockout? It might. Some people do a thing and succeed on their first try. But usually not. And even if it works, it usually takes longer.
When I write a story, it’s usually because I want to write it badly enough to deal with the frustration of writing it. If you want to branch out into writing stories, you need to be prepared to deal with that frustration, too. If you don’t, that’s okay. Nobody is forcing you.
Sometimes I Don’t Get It”
On the other hand, I wonder if some people would like to write but can’t find the wherewithal to start. Maybe you haven’t written in a while. Maybe you haven’t written in a particular genre in a while. Or ever. We humans are really good at coming up with excuses for not doing something. It’s not enough to say that you don’t want to do something. Much better to say that actually the right way to go is in the direction of the thing you were going to do anyway.
I speak from experience. I used to have dreams where I would wake up and go to school. Then when I actually woke up, I was five or ten minutes late. My mind decided I needed the rest. But if I was subconsciously afraid to miss the bus or the bell, I would not be able to stay asleep. Hence the dream of waking up and going down to breakfast. That extra little bit of trickery ensured I stayed in bed where (according to my brain) I belonged.
It’s not always quite so obvious that that’s what’s happening. But if you have a persistent desire to do something and yet that something never gets done… It’s not the right time, perhaps. Or you don’t have the tools. Or what would people say? Maybe it’s time to reach out and ask for guidance or advice or, god forbid, help. I guess what I’m saying is: anxiety is a kill-joy. But there are ways around or through it if you really want what’s on the other side. My philosophy is: the more obstacles to you writing your story, the more I want to read it.
If you want to write a story, a poem, an essay, or a few of each, I’m here to help.
I Want Everyone to Write their Story
I grant you I’m speaking from a place of bias. From a place of wanting everyone to write their story. I have friends who would be amazing writers. They’ve lived fascinating lives. They have so many stories to tell. Indeed many of them can weave a mesmerizing yarn in person or over the phone. But when it comes to writing, or when it comes to writing a particular genre, they just… don’t. That confuses me. I think, instinctively anyway, I look at someone who doesn’t write creatively as if they were an alien.
But that’s fine. I’m here to encourage. Not to force. If you want to write a story, a poem, an essay, or a few of each, I’m here to help. And if you don’t? If you find meaning in your life on a different path? Well… I won’t judge you for it. Well. In my head, I will. Trying not to. Really am. But a little judgment always leaks through. Anyway, that’s my problem, not yours.