A few years ago, I was lucky enough to hear author Ron Rash speak. With his easy Southern drawl and self-effacing humor, he described how he came to be a writer. I don't remember all the details, just this idea of him sitting in his house - maybe even the bathroom? - and writing and writing away, one story after another, all of it junk, none of it good. Here he was, trying to make a career out of something he, in his own words, couldn't even do well. And yet for the life of him, he couldn't quit.
Obviously, Rash, who has since written the New York Times bestselling novel Serena, along with other award winning novels and collections of stories and poems, stuck with it. Kept going. And slowly, slowly, his writing became something better than good - it became something great.
It was exactly what I needed to hear. My own writing felt cumbersome and sloppy, unlikely to get me anywhere, and yet impossible to stop. But it was all too easy to entertain the idea of quitting. Who was I to chain myself to this thing that might never produce anything of worth, anything even good?
Every time I hear another author's story, it helps me remember that we all start somewhere, with the hint of an idea and a laptop or pad of paper, trying to scribble down a story, no idea of whether we'll actually succeed.
That idea is driven home in Rash's answer to the question of what was his proudest achievement to date in an interview with Tinge Magazine:
"That I didn't give up, that I had enough faith in myself to keep writing when I was getting rejection slip after rejection slip. That's part of the deal. Too many writers who are good give up too quickly."
And for those of us who have been working away for years, still no luck finding an agent or publishing a book or selling a story, his reminder in that same interview that immediate success isn't always ideal might be just as helpful:
"I feel very lucky that what attention has come to me has come after thirty years of writing. It's often unhealthy for young writers to get a lot of attention. Too many distractions, and they may become too easily satisfied with the level of their work."
And finally, my favorite might just be his advice to writers:
"Learn your craft, be patient, and - I believe this, although there are a few exceptions - if your work is good, somebody's going to notice. It may take a while. This is easy for me to say since, obviously, I have a New York publisher and my work is getting attention now, but often young writers worry too much about that. It's only human to want to break in and get the acclaim, but the main energy has to go into becoming a better writer."
Ahhh. Good words from a wise, writerly soul. Thanks, Ron Rash, for sharing your encouraging advice. And for sticking with writing yourself.
Bristlecone pine photo: www.loc.gov
All quotes from Ron Rash, Tinge Magazine, Spring 2012