Guest blog by David R. Roth
Resilience is commonly used to describe the capacity to overcome things like trauma, tragedy, or oppressive adversity. It’s a word that carries a heavy load. Using it to designate one of the skills a writer must develop seems hyperbolic at best, and at worst insulting to those who experience life-altering ordeals. And yet here I am placing writers and resilience side by side in the title of an essay. If you have ever written with the hope of having your words published, especially if that hope included a publisher actually paying for the privilege of printing your words, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, allow me to explain.
Scan the volumes of how-to books on creative writing—from the countless formulaic guides on writing a bestseller to the professorial elegies on the art of writing—and you will find that one piece of advice appears in some form in every one: Steel yourself for relentless, soul-crushing rejection. Aspiring authors are constantly reminded of how few of them will ever make a living from their writing and how rejection and, even worse, indifference comes from every direction: journal and magazine editors, fellowship and writing retreat selection committees, MFA programs, book festival event planners, writing contest judges, literary agents, publishers and, the unkindest cut of all, readers. The odds of experiencing anything even vaguely resembling success as an author are so long that it is a wonder anyone would choose to put words on a page and then seek to release that page into the unforgiving world we euphemistically call the marketplace; a euphemism because a more accurate term would be abattoir, the place where most of our work goes to die.
So why try? The case made by most who speak to this subject is that a writer writes because they have to. If you are called to the craft, they say, you do not consider it a choice. You take on this uniquely solitary task out of a passion for the uniquely human act of smithing words into sentences and sentences into stories. This passion, writers will tell you, is born of a belief in the profundity and importance of storytelling to the lives of humans; a belief that is grounded not in the ego of the storyteller but in the history of the species.
In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind, Yuval Harari wrote, “Sapiens can talk about…entities that they have never seen, touched, smelled, tasted or heard…. This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.”
The ability to speak about fictions, to wonder, to imagine, this is what makes us human. As Steven Pinker noted in The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window to Human Nature, “[Early] wordsmiths…reached for a metaphor that reminded them of a specific idea and that they hoped would evoke a similar idea in the minds of their listeners.” Metaphor comes from the Greek meaning to transfer or to carry across. The seed of language development was this desire to come up with a gesture or sound that could carry an idea—say, a prowling tiger or a watering hole or a herd of wildebeests or the desire to mate—across the distance between the speaker and their audience. The idea may not be identically represented in the respective imaginations of those to whom it is transferred, but the story it tells—“There is water on the other side of that hill”—is shared.
Writers insist that it is this Promethean power of Sapiens language that fuels their passion to create not for personal gain but to honor their commitment to smith the right words in the right order to achieve the desired effect. I contend that this is merely writers’ highfalutin way of rationalizing their persistent, irrational pursuit of an idealized writing life.
Rationalization, you gasp, not passion? The passion story has been expressed many brilliant ways by famous writers who struggled through periods of rejection, as well as by not famous writers whose work is both admirable and unknown, and it is my judgment that this passion they speak of is writers’ first line of psychic defense against a vocation that is structured to break their heart and then suck the marrow from their bones. Writers must tell themselves (and believe) some version of the passion story if they are to withstand the punishment of the writer’s gauntlet.
After the writing is finished, then comes the pitching, then editing, then editing some more, then publication, then promotion, and finally—if one experiences the great good fortune of attracting a reader or two—criticism. This gauntlet is so fraught that no amount of passion for the creative process can possibly be sufficient to protect the writer from the potential frustration and pain that awaits at every turn. The pitch that inspires no interest. The editing process that turns your labor of love into an act of infanticide. The agent who can’t sell your work. The publisher who decides to pull the plug. The promotion that eats up both your money and your writing time. The critics who decide it is their responsibility to add insult to the injuries already meted out.
So, yes, rationalization formulated as passion to forge the resilience necessary to withstand what Henry James called “…the madness of art.” Art’s madness takes many forms, ranging from crippling self-doubt to constant rejection and the inevitable criticism. Becoming a writer must include strategies for steeling themselves against the madness so they can focus on their work. Writers’ strategies for strengthening resilience are much like anyone else’s, including challenging assumptions, positive self-talk, overcoming fears, and finding a supportive community. But the passion story remains the writer’s sturdiest bulwark. James said it best in the famous lines that precede the one quoted above. “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.”
Our passion is our task. It sounds reductive. But if there is a truism to be taken from James’s fictional character’s lament, it is simply that, in the end, storytelling is a vocation one takes on against all odds. It is a task best suited to the resolute and resilient.
David R. Roth has an undergraduate degree from Stanford University and an MFA from Cedar Crest College’s Pan-European writing program. He has studied creative writing at New York University, The American University in Paris, and Drexel University’s Storylab. His short stories have appeared in Passager Journal, Moss, and Every Writer. His debut novel, The Femme Fatale Hypothesis, was released in November 2021. His work focuses on fictional lives lived in fictional Delaware River towns in Pennsylvania, his real home for four decades.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.