There’s a movement, maybe just a few but loud voices, propelled by the advent of easy self-publishing, that argue that writing should be fast and easy if you’re good. One of these proponents has argued that his mediocre writing isn’t so mediocre that it won’t sell: “The author selling the traditional published book at $15 has to prove that he’s ten times the writer I am when I’m selling my book at $1.50. I may not be as good as him but he’s not ten times better than me.” It reduces the question of what makes good writing to be only one of raw economics. And it provides a ready response to those challenged that good writing requires work: “Na, not really.”

The writer just beginning to face the rejections of publishers and magazine editors can be tempted by this mentality. Maybe it’s the system that’s wrong. Maybe I’m already good enough. Maybe I don’t need to be great. Maybe I just need to be good enough.

Francine Prose would likely decry that approach as cowardly. The writer is taking the easy route, the less difficult route. Whatever the final form your piece appears in, if that form allowed you to avoid hard work and facing, with courage, our own internal barriers to wrestling out the best product possible, that is the easy route. What is the work that is kept being alluded to? The working writer “will have to revise, rework, reconsider—sometimes rewrite completely.” (Oates 179) Joyce Carol Oates confronts the lazy writer in Telling Stories: “The writer who is impatient with revision, for all his or her natural gifts, will be disadvantaged; of however good the work, it isn’t so good as it might have been. Any artist who is impatient with revision is probably doomed to be forever an amateur: ‘promising’ through a lifetime.” (Oates 179)

There are two routes for any artist: to be a professional and to be an amateur. The gap between them is surmounted with simple courage and work. The term “simple” is not used to conotate ease. In fact, quite the opposite. To engaged in the effort of growing yourself as a writer, that work and courage will be increasingly difficult and, potentially, tumultuous: “{W}hen you first figure out . . . How much work writing is, of how much patience and solitude it demands from the writer who wants to write well, and of how the compulsion to spend long hours writing can deform a “normal” life. And, as awful as they are, these doubts and terrors pale beside the question of whether your writing will be any good, or of whether you will succeed enough to be able to do it in the first place.” (Prose 263)

Where are we to find the motivation to write this way? To revise this way? To find the courage to wrestle with our own writing hobgoblins? From reading itself. To see that others have crossed that gap, and to see how they have done it, is inspiring. To see that it took monumental effort to cross that can be quite motivating. Of my distant literary heroes, I find myself returning to Hemingway over and over. Reading the final stories he crafted can be overwhelming and defeating as a beginning writer. It’s difficult to see how my stumbling with words could ever achieve mastery that he demonstrated. And then, Oates reminds me that Hemingway achieved that through work: “Ernest Hemingway, even as a young writer, rewrote and revised continually; it was his practice to write for hours, with a pencil, waiting patiently for his ‘one true sentence’ to emerge.” (Oates 180) Prose echoes that we should find this “fuel” in other writers: “Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation.” (Prose 250).

“Reading can give you the courage to resist all of the pressures that our culture exerts on you to write in a certain way, or to follow a prescribed form. It can even persuade you that it might not be necessary to give your novel or story a happy ending.” (Prose 258) Octavia Butler’s final scene in the southern past in Kindred give us an example of a writer making a courageous choice. Apart from Dana, the primary character is Rufus, who we are first introduced to as a boy. Along the way, we see him grow and we see a life, due to the intervention of a supernatural force (Dana), show possibility of redemption despite his surroundings. This hope is held onto and fanned alive with every progressing chapter. Near the end, we even see a contrasting moment between Thomas, Rufus’ father, and Rufus himself in the way both approached the education of their children. Rufus might be a better father than his own. Yet, in the end, the spiritual disease that enabled slavery has grown and festered for so long in Rufus that just when we hope he’s at the moment of redemption, he reveals that he’s furthest removed he’s ever been. A tidy resolution would’ve been to have him acquiesce to Dana’s insistence for his own culpability and needed response. There was a nice plot line leading to that. But it wasn’t true. Rufus was Rufus and the Rufus that raped once would be the Rufus that would attempt to rape again. The power and courage of the scene lies with its opposition to the reader’s own prolonged hope for Rufus himself. She could’ve made us happy, but that wasn’t the story. Be true to the story, whether or not it pleases the readers. A happy ending is often a silent rule, but as Prose tells us, good “literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.” (Prose 250)

What awaits the committed writer? What awaits the writer truly determined to write great things and not just good things? Hours of writing. Hours of revising, reworking, and reconsidering. Hours of waiting patiently for our own “one true sentence” to emerge. This path requires courage. Thankfully, that is to be found in great measure, readily supplied by those that have own traveled down that way, have bridged that gap, and have spent the long hours. Read with courage to gain courage to work and write.

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