Ode to the Patient Writer

The level of my patience sometimes follows the phases of the moon. I wax and wane between “my time will come” to “what if I miss it?”

A recent post of mine led to a nice discussion and mention of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. And, in picking up her book today (during a quiet half hour), I read two quotes from the first chapter that struck a chord with me. Annie Dillard’s words reminded me that a writer must not only be patient with the work, but also indifferent to it.

On the subject of time:

“I takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant.”

“Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms” (p. 13-14).

On the writer’s feeling about his or her work:

“There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged” (p. 15).

I struggle with both the panic that a story not published soon will be a story out of date and the anxiety of whether or not what I write is good — or, good enough. I love reading the thoughts of other writers who have gone before me, and finding truth and insight in their words, especially as I enter into a new year with new writing aspirations.


Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1989), p. 13-15.


10 responses to “Ode to the Patient Writer

  1. My post tomorrow cites your previous post and comment where you mention Annie Dillard. That one set me off. This one didn’t.

    I sympathize with your “mood swings.” I also understand the vacillating between this is brilliant this is garbage. I want so badly to be done NOW, to move on from Brevity, but I also want to work on improving it. It’s not been two years since I started it, so I guess I have more time.

    • Linda,

      Thanks (in advance) for mentioning my post on your blog.

      And, one of the forums on She Writes (the Novelists group) focuses on when to call it quits with rewrites, and how many drafts are necessary for a “finished” manuscript.

      Like most things in writing, it seems there’s no hard and fast rule, just a variety of experiences! Even two to ten years leaves the door open for a gamut of possible times frames.

  2. Oh the bliss when we think our work is wonderful and the misery when we believe it’s not. Thank you so much for visiting and commenting on my blog.

  3. Did anyone else feel the urge to google whether or not people really do eat cars? O.o

    • Oooo, I love Google.

      And, funny enough, Natalie Goldberg has a chapter in Writing Down the Bones called “Man Eats Car.” She mentions that someone told her about a newspaper article on a yogi in India who actually ate a car.

      Her book and Annie Dillard’s are published just a few years apart. They must be talking about the same man!
      Okay, did Google it. This was all I could find so far: http://www.answerbag.com/q_view/86151

  4. I think writing a book in less than two years isn’t as rare as Dillard indicated; although, I’m assuming she didn’t count the subconscious or barely conscious processing of ideas into usable story elements.

    New writers are slowed by learning activities: studying published works, experimenting with techniques familiar to the old pros, fumbling with prose in search of an understandable or unique style, squeezing writing time into already busy schedules (or developing the habit or sitting down to write), and working through emotional blocks (all those mountains and sinkholes we create for ourselves).

    Once we’ve trained our minds and bodies to write consistently and in our own way, I think we won’t necessarily take years to write a novel.

    That’s my wish, anyway.

    While I’m still on my way to completing my first novel, I’m with you. Lately, I’ve been trying to summon more than a small amount of patience.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ann.

      I agree that new writers spend more time learning the craft than writing the novel. That’s a great way to look at the process while trying to muster up patience for myself.

  5. I really like this little book by Annie Dillard–so much that I named my blog from a passage.

    It’s all a very individual process. For me, it takes time–both the writing and the publishing. The first story I ever wrote, which was basically finished in 2004, was published in 2009. I’m getting ready to send out a story I finally cracked open that I’ve been trying to figure out since 2005. And at this very minute I’m here visiting your blog while taking a break from re-working a story I started in 2006 and that I thought was finished. Thank goodness I sent it through a workshop (I agree, getting that feedback can be very useful) because I now realize what I need to do with it. Yes, Ode to the Patient Writer–thanks for singing my song.

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