05 December 2022

Brick by Brick

Persistence may be humanity’s highest moral calling.  Lightning flashes of heroism may be the stuff of stirring narrative, but it’s often the steady pressure of day-to-day effort that rules the day. 

Real-life homicide detectives know this.  If they haven’t caught the perpetrator in the first few days after the crime, they know they’re committed to the long slog. They hunker down, gather their resources and push on.  You’ve often heard about them canvassing the neighborhood.  What that means is they’ve knocked on every door, interviewed every source, researched every possible connection.  This is vastly difficult and time-consuming work. 

Writing is sort of like this.  Ever notice that you can only write one letter at a time?  Assuming you don’t dictate your novels into a machine.  It’s work, and it takes concentration and discipline and persistence over long periods of time. 

Winston Churchill wrote millions of words over the course of his prolific lifetime.  He also loved to lay up brick.  I think there’s a connection there.  I’m guessing those bricks were exceptionally straight and well-placed, a sturdy bulwark against the ravages of time.  Like his prose. 

Churchill is often compared to a bulldog, of course, but I’m better acquainted with terriers.  To me, these are a sub-species of dog, unique in their focus and determination.  And persistence.  I’ve had five over the years, and none have ever caught a squirrel, though each opportunity is met with the same level of fierce resolve.  They never give up.  They never surrender. 

My other hero of persistence is my friend Steve Liskow, who submitted 350 short stories before getting his first acceptance.  He went on to win a bucketful of awards, including an Edgar nomination, which makes the tale that much more moving.  My wife will tell you that I’m not easily deterred when I have my mind set on something, but I can honestly say I’d have thrown in the towel long before Steve. 

The guy who founded the ad agency we worked for, and later bought, once told me that the two most important qualities behind a successful venture were clear thinking and endurance.  That drive to get out of bed every morning, no matter how tired you feel, and how much you’d rather be doing something else. 

When Glen Frey of the Eagles was a struggling nobody he lived in an apartment above Jackson Brown, also struggling.  Frey notes that he was kept awake by Jackson Brown going over the same musical stanza for countless hours, perfecting and polishing.  Okay, that Jackson Brown and Glen Frey (and his roommates Don Henley and JD Souther) lived in the same apartment house doesn’t seem possible, but you get the point.  Some may call it obsession, but to others, it’s just doing the work.

I’ve never had writer’s block, thank God, but I’ve spent occasional moments staring at an empty page, or screen, wondering what I should do next.  My simple solution is to start writing. Anything.  A letter to a friend, a description of my mood, free association making little sense, but after a while, the words begin to form into coherent sentences, and I knew how the rest of the time is going to go. 

My favorite book on writing is Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  Her core thesis is contained in the title.  Her little brother was daunted by a report he had to write on birds, and their father advised him to just start the project, completing one bird at a time.  One step at a time, one brick on top of the next, one letter following another, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, until there you have it.

A book. 


  1. You are right about persistence. I used to tell my students, write a page a day and in a you'll have a novel. Of course, whether it is any good....

  2. Yes, it's all about persistence, or, in the case of rejections, maybe it's that little kid in you who hates to be told, "No." Just to clarify matters a little, my 350 rejections included several novel MS to agents and editors as well as short stories. The good news is that once I began selling short stories, I had several rejected novels as works in progress to go back and revise as I learned to do things better.

    Dogs and cats (we've had both) are the models for persistence. That squirrel doesn't get slower or that shelf lower, but they'll keep trying for it. A director I used to work with once said, "I'll cast a play with whoever shows up," and it took me years to understand that he meant the people who didn't quit auditioning...

    And yes, writer's block is a misnomer. We're not really "blocked," we just fail to recognize an idea that's not exactly what we were hoping for. You get through it by putting words on paper: a shopping list, place names, anything. I used to encourage my students to do "free-writing," and if they were stuck, keep writing "I don't know what to write" over and over until something else came. And it always did come.

  3. Endurance and persistence: there are a whole lot of people in their teens and twenties who talk about being "Authors and actors and artists and such", and even do some work, but see how many are still doing the work in their forties, fifties, sixties, seventies...


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