Dani Shapiro
April 8, 2009

On Tenacity

When I was in graduate school, I read a great essay by Ted Solotaroff called “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years”. I used to give a copy of that essay to all my students, and I probably still should. In it, Solotaroff muses about where all the promising young writers he’s taught over the years have gone. A decade goes by, and he finds only one or two of their names occasionally in print. Did they give up? Disappear? Call it a day? Did the cold get…too cold?

I think one of the most overlooked traits that separate writers who find their way to publication and writers who don’t is tenacity. Of course there are other important–some would say more important–traits, such as an ear, an eye, a sensibility, a creative gift. But these all are useless without tenacity. In fact, it seems to me that in certain cases, tenacity replaces talent and there are certainly some writers whose whole careers are based solely on it.

But what is it, exactly? Yesterday I worked and worked on one very small section of my book. Even though I’m nearly finished with a draft, I went back to the beginning because something wasn’t quite right. And as the day wore on, as I moved sentences around, cutting them, replacing them, ditching them, loving and wanting to hold onto them, ditching them anyway… the image that came to mind was that of a dog with a bone. (It helped that my puppy was lying next to me, chewing contentedly.) But I wasn’t content. I was rabid, quite insane, really. I wasn’t going to stop until I got it right–or at least as right as I could get it for that day.

A writer with her work needs to be like a dog with a bone all the time. She needs to know where she’s hidden it. Where she’s stored the good stuff. She needs to keep gnawing at it, even after all the meat seems to be gone. When a student of mine says (okay, whines) that she’s impatient, or tired, or the worst: isn’t it good enough? this may be harsh, but she loses just a little bit of my respect. Because there is no room for impatience, or exhaustion, or self-satisfaction, or laziness. All of these really mean, simply, that the inner censor has won the day.