Postcards From the Margins: Ham and Grit(s)

Still Life with a Ham, Anne Vallayer-Coster, c. 1767
Still Life with a Ham, Anne Vallayer-Coster, c. 1767

I’m giving Vincent Van Gogh (my beloved default artist) the day off to highlight a still life by 18th-century French painter Anne Vallayer-Coster featuring ham (internet slang, it seems for, well, let’s say “tough”).  And way at the bottom of this post you’ll find an excellent recipe for cheese grits.

Because that’s what I want to blog about today: writers and grit. Short- and long-fiction writers and grit. About how fiction writers, especially, I think, have grit:  by nature, by hard training, by the grace of all of our gods.

Angela Duckworth (U of Penn Dept of Psychology Professor and researcher) defines “grit” as  perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  Duckworth does research in personality processes and individual differences that predict success.  The achievement of difficult goals, she concludes, entails not only talent but the sustained and focused application of talent over time.

“Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges,” writes Duckworth, and “maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress.”

Yes, yes and yes.  Effort and interest over years despite failure.  Over years, despite adversity.  Over years, despite plateaus in progress.  It’s like the definition was written for fiction writers, and even more so for those of us who love to write short fiction.

In 7+ years of a primarily ficiton-writing career started in midlife, I’ve submitted 205 stories and gotten 8 acceptances, a failure rate just over 96%. (Thank you–I think–Duotrope, for easy access to those figures.) And yet, my most recent publication is in Spring 2014 Ploughsharesa very good journal, by many people’s estimation. I’ve sent out 3 new short story submissions in the last month–and I’m as hopeful as ever about each.  My original novel manuscript (now years in revision) was rejected by (on the order of) 15 publishers.  I’ll admit to not keeping count after a while.  And right after I finish blogging today, I’ll be right back at it with the goal of sending an excellent final revision to my agent in a few weeks.

Fiction writers know failure.  Short fiction writers, a lot of failure.

We also know adversity.  Adversity light:  We wait really, really long periods of time to hear back about our submissions. My record is almost two years–and they took it!  We are subject to remarkable machinations of self-doubt:  It’s good if you don’t hear for a long time; it’s bad if you don’t hear for a long time; OMG, a rejection in two days–I’ll bet the editors were laughing in the coffee room over that one!  And of course we each take great solace in a really good rejection.

Adversity not-so-light:  Even excellent literary journals are known to “pay” in “complimentary copies.” A writer-friend tapped her retirement account for living expenses in the last few months before her debut novel sold. Only, of course, she didn’t know when or if it was going to sell.  Another friend juggles several adjunct professor jobs, spending time in traffic and trying to find functional office space when she could be writing.  Many others struggle with the time and energy drains of boring and poorly paid (if paid at all) day-jobs, including, sometimes (gotta love ’em, but we all know it’s true) care of our own children. There aren’t enough hours in a day or dollars in savings to do everything we have to and write.

If adversity includes upset, reverse and setback, fiction writers know it in spades.

And if you’re a fiction writer, especially a short fiction writer, no doubt you’ve had thoughts like these pass through your head, more often than you’d like:  I just want ONE resume-worthy item for the year!  and/or the ever popular, I’m needing some good news right about now!

Fiction-writing is subject to nerve-racking, soul-crushing plateaus in progress.

There is a question that comes up, often, in conversations among ourselves, maybe more so among fiction writers and particularly those of us whose publications are presently limited to journals few people outside of our circles have heard of:   Am I a writer?  We’ve been known to choke on the answer when requested, for example, to state a profession, or when asked at a party or family gathering, And just what is it that you do?

I’ll admit to “faking it to make it” early on, but I’ve been answering “I’m a writer” for years now.  I’ve got the talent and the sustained and focused application in spite of failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. I’ve got grit.

I’m a fiction writer.  Soon, I hope, one you’ve heard of.

In the meantime, here’s some cheese grits for you, courtesy of Food and Wine, April 2008:

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup old-fashioned grits
1 and 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons heavy cream
kosher salt
freshly ground pepper

In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a boil.  Add the garlic and slowly stir in the grits.  Reduce the heat to moderately low and cook, stirring frequently, until the trots are tender, 20 minutes.  Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the cheese, butter and cream.  Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Always better with a nice (or not-so-nice) portion of ham.







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