Writers and achievement: endurability and tenacity, not just talent


Author Dani Shapiro quotes from the essay “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years” by Ted Solotaroff, in which he comments about so many talented writers disappearing.

“It doesn’t appear to be a matter of talent itself,” he wrote. “Some of the most natural writers, the ones who seemed to shake their prose or poetry out of their sleeves, are among the disappeared.

“As far as I can tell, the decisive factor is what I call endurability: that is, the ability to deal effectively with uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment, from within as well as from without.”

A need for persistence and resilience to succeed

Writer Rachel Simon notes, “Tenacity has always been a primary theme in the lives of successful writers: some historians believe that Plato rewrote the first sentence of The Republic fifty times; Virgil needed ten years to write the Aeneid; Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which itself required five years of work, was not even begun until Flaubert had written, and discarded, two other novels;

“James Joyce’s Ulysses took eight years to write, and countless rejections to get published; Ernest Hemingway rewrote the final page of A Farewell to Arms almost forty times…”

She adds that Ted Solotaroff “says in his essay that Bobbie Ann Mason submitted twenty stories to The New Yorker before one was accepted; Solotaroff adds that Raymond Carver wrote for almost ten years before his first story appeared in print, then persevered another seven before publishing his first book; Harold Brodkey’s first novel, Runaway Soul, took thirty-one years of revision between its 1960 book contract and its 1991 publication.

“These are just a few of the better-known examples, but every author, even the most obscure, has his or her own stories of tenacity.”

From The Writer’s Survival Guide: Chapter 3: The General Antidotes, by Rachel Simon [posted on her site]

Refining creative talent

“To be successful and high achieving takes inborn talent”; “Talent will out”; “You need a gift to be exceptional” – all these are myths, according to research detailed by Geoff Colvin in his book Talent Is Overrated.

These preconceptions also fuel a sense of inadequacy, lower esteem or decreased self-efficacy for many people, and distorted beliefs that we need to be “special” to reach high levels of excellence and achievement. From my post Outstanding gifted adults: Geoff Colvin on why Talent is Overrated.

Here is a related post: Grit and perseverance mean more than talent and high aptitude.

Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Outliers that to master any skill requires about 10,000 concentrated hours. From my post Outliers and developing exceptional abilities.

Dani Shapiro writes further on endurance and the writer’s inner life in her essay A writing career becomes harder to scale:

“Every single piece of writing I have ever completed — whether a novel, a memoir, an essay, short story or review — has begun as a wrestling match between hopelessness and something else, some other quality that all writers, if they are to keep going, must possess.”

Noting there is so much pressure on the writer to sell and make an impact in the marketplace, she asks “How, under these conditions, can a writer take the risks required to create something original and resonant and true?

“Perhaps there is a clue to be found near the end of Solotaroff’s essay: ‘Writing itself, if not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer’s main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer’s main means of relating to otherness.'”

She adds, “The writer who has experienced this even for a moment becomes hooked on it and is willing to withstand the rest. Insecurity, rejection and disappointment are a price to pay, but those of us who have served our time in the frozen tundra will tell you that we’d do it all over again if we had to.

“And we do. Each time we sit down to create something, we are risking our whole selves.

“But when the result is the transformation of anger, disappointment, sorrow, self-pity, guilt, perverseness and wounded innocence into something deep and concrete and abiding — that is a personal and artistic triumph well worth the long and solitary trip.”

[Image:  George Orwell chose to write Nineteen Eighty-Four while living in Barnhill, an abandoned farmhouse on the isle of Jura in the Inner Hebrides. From my post Places to be Creative.]

[Long distance runner photo at top is from post: Tips For Tackling Long Runs.



  1. Thank you for sharing this insightful essay. I was getting discouraged as I read Ms. Shapiro’s words, but her concluding thought … that it’s about the writing … reminded me to focus on what’s important.

    I will be linking to the essay from my site. I hope you can come and visit. If you would like a different attribution, please let me know.

    Many thanks!

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