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I’ve read a good deal of writing advice, and I’ve tried to share the best of it with readers of this magazine. But in my opinion, there’s one nugget of wisdom that gets dug up in far too many essays on the writing life: “No excuses.” It’s typically used to remind us how, when all is said and done, the writer must write, period. It’s a battle cry against procrastination, and I appreciate its efficacy. After all, I can come up with a year’s worth of things that need to be done before I sit down to finish my book. But this prohibition on excuses strikes me as a mere headline, appealing to those who think riches await if only they can commit to a rigorous writing schedule. It’s an example of the five-easy-steps approach to literature that I vehemently resist.
Lately I’ve been turning this pointer on its ear, and it’s proven to be much more useful. My feelings on this matter began, I suppose, with last issue’s profile of novelist Ben Fountain who, as Roberta Werdinger points out in her recent letter to the editor (page 11), was quoted as having said, “It’s slightly ridiculous to be fifty-three years old and about to have your debut novel come out.” Turn to this issue’s twelfth annual roundup of debut fiction (41) and you’ll find Anna Keesey talking to Peter Ho Davies about why it took a decade to finish her debut novel: “Oh God! If something takes you that long to write, it had better be Middlemarch or Gravity's Rainbow to justify the time. So it’s embarrassing to discuss. The short answer, maybe, is that for years I was tentative about the book, anxious and ridiculous, and for years after that I was adopting and then raising a child, mostly on my own, while working.”
To which I cry out, “No excuses!” The truth is, if we’re doing good work there is no need to justify it. No matter how long it takes; no matter how many revisions have been scrapped or how many agents and editors have rejected us, we shouldn’t have to offer excuses for how we got here. Living a life (with its attendant mortgage payments, pediatrician appointments, and flat tires) and writing a great poem or story or essay or book are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite. The writing life is messy, and there’s no secret to success. Instead, there are many paths leading to where you want to go. In this and every issue, we offer a look at their twists and turns. From pursuing a literary agent (50) to self-publishing (73), the common denominator is the power of writing.
No excuses necessary.