As I walk along the sidewalk, a phrase comes to mind. I consider it, repeat it, turn it back and forth, say it out loud (something I’m doing more and more of and which can worry passersby). I suddenly realize that it could go with a poem that I was working on five years ago and eventually abandoned. I had liked the poem, but it had never quite worked. This phrase could be the solution, or at least a way towards a solution. When I get home, I find the old file and start revising the section of poem where the phrase might fit. It becomes better, much better, but it still isn’t right. And then, perhaps because I’ve been writing a lot of fiction this summer, I realize the poem isn’t a poem, but a piece of short fiction. Or – to not even bother with these distinctions – the piece doesn’t need line breaks and stanzas, but paragraph breaks and looser sentences. When I make these changes, it comes together.
If someone should ask one day, “How long did it take you to write that?” what should I answer? Several afternoons? A couple of weeks? That’s how much actual time I spent, but those afternoons were separated by years.
I’m often asked for advice about writing, and the main piece I have, perhaps the only one, is: be in it for the long haul. Not because it takes years to achieve success or recognition, but because it can take years to finish even some small works.
In a preface to Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare explains how he read about one of the play’s key events in a newspaper, but he didn’t write about it, or even think about it explicitly, for six years. He also mentions writing another play, but not having a beginning for it. Then, in his notebooks, he found material that he had written two years earlier that fit perfectly.
Or to offer a different example, Neil Gaiman has talked about how he had the idea for The Graveyard Book, started to write it, and realized that he wasn’t good enough to do it (or didn’t think he was). So, he put the idea aside and developed his skills. Twenty years later, he tried again, and discovered that he could write the book in a way that satisfied him.
Some might find this discouraging. I find it reassuring. Writing is something that – at least theoretically – you can get better at as you get older. Our physical skills decline much faster than our mental ones. I have long past the point where I can improve at basketball, soccer, or swimming, but I think my writing is getting better. Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote when he was 57, and then, he is believed to have hit his “creative stride” at 65. Saul Bellow, John Updike, Adrienne Rich, all continued to do important work until they died
Some consider writing an act of faith. I consider it an act of optimism. My advice? The usual. Go home and write. For years. Hopefully the rest of your life.