Everyday Courage and the Writer
Everyday Courage and the Writer
© by Holly Lisle
All Rights Reserved
Back when I was attending a fair number of conventions and signing
a decent number of books, I came up with a saying which I attributed
to my Hoos headhunters from the Arhel books, and called a Hoos proverb.
It was, “Courage is nothing more than taking one step more than
you think you can.”
Neither the proverb nor the sentiment are particularly original,
but I have no idea who said the words first, or how he might have
said them. I do know the words are true. Courage has nothing to
do with feeling or not feeling fear, with doing great deeds (though
sometimes courage accomplishes great deeds), or with conquering
life-and-death situations (though in such situations it is certainly
Courage is a form of tenaciousness, a refusal to quit when you
want to quit because you’re tired or humiliated or broken, and it
is as necessary in everyday life as it is in moments of great upheaval.
In fact, I could easily say that everyday courage is more
important than the ‘great deeds’ sort, because every one of us will
be in everyday situations, while not all of us will be called upon
in our lifetimes to perform great deeds.
Courage is as essential to the writer as oxygen, no more and no
less. The writer who lacks courage will never succeed.
And you’re saying, “That’s silly. I can’t think of a safer sort
Really? Think again.
Let me define what writing is for you. You’re going to attempt
to sell the products of your mind to a world that doesn’t care right
now whether you breathe or not. You’re going to strip your soul
naked and parade it in front of editors and agents, publishers and
eventually—if you’re persistent and lucky and talented—readers.
You’re going to say “What I carry around inside my head is so interesting,
so compelling, so riveting, that you, the agent, are going to want
to risk your reputation with editors for being a shrewd judge of
talent to present the products of my fancy to them; and that you,
the editor, are going to want to put your career on the line to
fight to bring my imaginings to press; and that you, the publisher
are going to want to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars
presenting these imaginings to a world that has never heard of me;
and that you, the reader, are going to want to put your hard-earned
money on the line so that I can tell you a story that will give
you nothing tangible.”
While you are reaching out to editors, agents and publishers,
you’re going to fail. Over and over and over again, you are going
to send things out and they are going to come back with impersonal
rejection notices, with no notices at all, with the occasional signed
memo that “This isn’t for us.” You are going to stare at your words
and sit in a darkened room and wonder, “What the hell is the matter
with me?” You are going to take the rejections personally, are going
to hurt, are going to bleed. Agents will turn you down, editors
will turn you down, places that don’t even pay for stories will
turn you down.
So say you have courage. Say you go on, and you take one step
more than you think you can, and then one step more after that,
and then one step more after that. Eventually you will sell something.
You’ll get paid. You’ll ‘succeed.’ Your story or your book will
enter the marketplace, and maybe you’ll do well with it, or maybe
you won’t. In either case, let’s say you keep going. You sell again.
Even though you’ve succeeded, you’re going to fail some more. You’ll
get hostile reviews. Letters from people who don’t think you can
write. Comments from critics questioning your talent, your vocation,
your species. These will, if you’re lucky, come interspersed with
glowing reviews, a nice sell-through, an offer from your editor
to buy the next thing you’re doing, but don’t think for a minute
that the good things will offset the pain of the bad. They run in
parallel courses, these good and bad responses, and they don’t touch
each other’s worlds at all. I’m always delighted by the good reviews,
always hurt by the bad ones.
But go on. You take another few steps, and these seem easier.
You do more books, find an audience, settle into a flow. You discover
one of the ugly facts of success—that there are people who you
thought were your friends who were only your friends when you were
failing. Now that you have, in their eyes, reached success, you
have become the enemy. A target. They want to see you fall down,
because when you are standing, you make them feel their own failures
You leave the false friends behind. You keep writing, keep selling,
get fan mail, generate some nice reviews, make guest appearances
at conventions, become (as much as any writer ever does) a celebrity
in your field. And somewhere along the way you realize that you
want to stretch your wings. Try something you haven’t tried before.
You write this new thing, and your fans hate it because it’s different,
and your editor takes a beating, and your publisher loses money,
and all of a sudden you’re in a precarious position. You have to
decide—pursue the new course and take chances, or stagnate in
the old thing that has become popular and that is starting to feel
like a prison. Or find some third writing course.
All along the way, you’ve had to face the certainty of various
sorts of failure. You’ve been embarrassed by your family, who does
not understand why you must do this ridiculous thing. You’ve felt
pain and rejection and worthlessness. You’ve had your soul and your
talent and your hope stepped on, and you’ve cried your share of
private tears, and you’ve kept up a brave face in public more than
you’ll ever admit. Even when you succeed by your own definition
of success, whatever that might be, you will continue to struggle,
and you will never leave the struggle behind. Every story and every
book is another chance to fail just exactly as much as it is another
chance to succeed. Every new level of success raises the bar higher,
making failure more public and more painful … and more likely.
Every day is a challenge, and every day requires courage.
I’ve learned this about writing—if you will not put yourself
in a position to fail, you cannot succeed. The two are as inseparably
linked as breathing in is linked to breathing out. You cannot have
one without the other, though you can live a safe life and have
Courage is standing at the bottom of the mountain, knowing that
the climb is going to hurt like hell and that you might never reach
the top, and climbing anyway. Courage is saying “One more step.
Just one more step,” when hands and knees and heart are bleeding.
Courage is saying that you might let yourself quit tomorrow, but
that you’re going to hang in today, just for now… and not telling
your tired, hurting self that the next day is always today, and
the next moment is always now.
What about my climb? I’ve done my share of falling, and I have
the scars to show for it. It seems like there’s as much mountain
above me as there ever was, though when I look back, I can see that
I’ve covered a surprising amount of ground, every bit of it one
step at a time. I still don’t know what the view from the top is
like. I do know what the view from the first ledge above the treeline
is like, though, and it’s been worth the climb so far. I’m still
working my way up the mountain, because what you can see from up
here is nothing you can even get pictures of in the valley where
it’s safe. Part of the beauty, I think, comes from having survived
the pain. Part of the elation, too. If it were easy, it wouldn’t
be any fun.
This is the world of writing, and it is the only world
of writing. Every writer climbs the same mountain, though we all
climb it by our own path. You can make this climb. It takes courage,
but it only takes the sort of courage everybody can have—the courage
not to quit when quitting would be the easy thing to do. You will
not be called on to perform heroics—to leap into burning buildings
or lift cars or fling yourself into the midst of a shark feeding
frenzy to save a drowning child. All you have to do is take one
more step. Remember to keep your head up, brush the dirt off your
face and pick the gravel out of your palms when you fall, and know
that every other person who climbed the mountain has done the same
Good luck in your climb. My wish for you is this: May you have
the courage to fail, because it is the courage to succeed.