The Inspiration/Perspiration Ratio

Back when I was in an MFA program, I took several workshops with novelist John Edgar Wideman. One afternoon, he told us something that rocked my naive writerly mind to its core. Talent is not the secret to success as a writer, he said. It would get us perhaps 5 percent of the way there. We could travel the remaining 95 percent of the way only through hard work--through years and years of persistent writing and revising, and years and years of submitting widely and enduring rejection. While occasional freak incidents might seem to prove otherwise, he said, such incidents are more than extremely unlikely.

I found this demoralizing. I had somehow believed that publishers would sniff out the future Emily Dickinsons of the world--who sat, of course, alone, composing brilliant pieces with little effort. But soon I learned that even Emily Dickinson labored over every line, and that--far from being a hermit--she sent her poems to influential friends and publishers. Otherwise, her brilliant poems would never have escaped the garbage heap.

As the years roll on, I take Wideman's assertions ever more to heart. And by fall 2013, after writing and revising a short personal essay for an absurd number of hours--including some twelve-hour sessions that crunched my body so tight, I could hardly stand afterward--I had an essay appear in the Modern Love column of the New York Times. I learned a lot through all that revising.