Kaze and I have written much at 317am about the travails and temptations of those attempting to write fiction – the virtues of seat time and regular patterns of writing versus the distracting allure of social media, sports on TV, looking out the window, and a thousand necessary little household tasks. For some accursed wannabe writers, there’s always, at any given moment, a good reason not to write. It often seems as if writing fiction boils down to two innate traits: talent and persistence, and not necessarily in that order.
These thoughts arise from a provocatively titled piece in the New York Times, “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?” by Paul Tough. The aptly named Tough is writing about a trend among educators – the theory that character is more important than IQ in determining academic success for both prep- school and inner-city students. As Tough writes after interviewing Dominic Randolph, the headmaster of Riverdale Country School, a top NYC private school:
The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”
Tough also interviews Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former charter-school teacher, who once wrote about the school-reform movement:
The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.
Hmmm. If we substitute the word “writing” for “learning” and “writers” for “students” in the above paragraph, we may be onto something. The back stories of great writers are dominated by tales like those of the prolific novelist Anthony Trollope, who wrote 1,000 words an hour as he rode the trains of Ireland during his job as a postal inspector, or the equally prolific cops-and-thugs novelist Elmore Leonard, who began his writing career by rising at 5:00 am each day to get his writing in before he went to work in a PR firm.
Then there’s the contemporary novelist Stewart O’Nan, who in a piece called “Finding Time To Write” once recommended:
Very simple things like keeping the manuscript with you at all times. Always keep it with you. That way you can always go back to it. Doesn’t have to be the whole manuscript. Another way to do this is to bring only the very last sentence that you worked on–where you left off, basically. Bring it with you on a sheet of paper or index card. Keep it on your person so that if you’re running around the building where you’re working, you take that five seconds to pull it out and look at it and say, “Okay, oh, maybe I’ll do this with it. Maybe I’ll do something else with it. Maybe I’ll fix it there.”
So how do you know whether you have the right stuff – that is, sufficient character – to be a real writer? Thankfully, Duckworth has devised a quickie little test called the Grit Scale to show where you stand on this matter of stick-to-it-tiveness. Now like all self-administered tests asking you about your state of mind, it’s quite subject to subjective manipulation. But still – if you try to answer honestly, it may tell you something about yourself that you were not fully aware of.
Here’s the test. Go ahead. Give the Grit Scale a try to find where you stand on a 1-5 scale from “not gritty at all” to “extremely gritty.”
What if you get a low grit score? Is improvement possible or should you give up all thoughts of the writing life? Generally speaking, the positive psychology movement says you can work on your character by raising your consciousness about your weak points and devising strategies to reprogram your habits. I have my doubts, but it’s a start.
For the record, my grit score is 4.1 – maybe grittier than the average person, possibly gritty enough to sustain a blog like 317am, but I’m pretty sure lacking the true, world-class grit of a Trollope, Leonard, or O’Nan.