"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

GUEST POST: HOLLYWOOD ON THE COUCH: For Writers, Patience is Still a Virtue

Dennis Palumbo
Posted: January 28, 2010 12:00 PM

I remember, as a kid, an embroidered sampler my aunt had on her living room wall. It read, "Lord, grant me patience---but hurry!"

I think of this saying often, especially when working in therapy with my writer patients. Not surprising. After all, commercial writing---books, magazines, TV and film---is a present-tense industry. In recent years, its motto has shifted from "What have you done lately?" to "What's next---and make it fast, line two is blinking."

Then there's the pressure, particularly for journalists, of blogging, filing stories as much as five times a day, constantly updating one's Facebook page, Twitters and website. This is not an atmosphere that cultivates patience.

(And not just for professional writers. In such a media-saturated climate of urgency, it's no wonder that Americans, to a great extent, have become impatient with the government's response to our critical economic issues.)

As a result of this current frenzy for speed, for quick results, patience---with oneself, one's work, and, more importantly, one's way of working---is a somewhat devalued commodity. Particularly among those who ought to know better---writers themselves.

Nowadays, few writers are advised to cultivate patience. There's a lot of pressure to just write, to get it out there, to strive mightily to come up with the next high concept ("You got anything like Iron Man?" "We're looking for another Harry Potter-type book." "How about a police procedural show on Mars?"). We live in a competitive, consumerist culture, and there's tremendous urgency to perform.
A virtue like patience---sort of in the same homey, humble category as gumption---can get lost in the manic rush to produce material.

It seems too that the word patience has lost some of its calming assurance, its reference to longevity, endurance, and the slow growth of technical skill. Rather than thinking of it as the quality that enables a writer to explore his or her material, growing more competent by small, even measures, patience has taken on the attributes of a necessary evil. When a writer who's struggling in his career or with his creative process tells me, through clenched teeth, that he knows he "needs more patience," what he's referring to is an arms-folded, foot-tapping-nervously-on-the-floor kind of impatience, waiting for things to get better.

When seen in this way, having patience becomes the sorry equivalent of having to eat your spinach: it's supposed to be good for you---it's a damned virtue, isn't it?---but nobody really likes it.

Patience, then, rather than having a calming, nurturing function, becomes strained, a tortured version of "waiting your turn" until you, too, make it as a writer.

Stephen Levine, a well-regarded meditation teacher, once described the cause of suffering as, simply, "wanting things to be otherwise." I think this is the key to understanding the value of patience for a writer. If a writer thinks she is being patient by, symbolically, gritting her teeth and waiting for "things to be otherwise," then she will in fact only add to her suffering.

Believe me, I understand the temptation to envision patience in this self-defeating manner, given the competitive environment writers of all stripes find themselves in now. Write more, write faster, write funnier, write bigger---these are the admonitions writers hear every day. So I'm probably in the minority when I suggest that writers rethink the concept of patience, not as a virtue one has to swallow, like the aforementioned spinach, but as a qualitative state of mind to be nurtured---for its own sake---in oneself.

Writers, like everyone else in contemporary life, seem in a great rush to "get somewhere." But without truly staying "where you are"---without being with your thoughts, feelings and impulses, and really inhabiting them---what is there about you that can emerge to inform your writing? Getting somewhere is meaningless if the writing that results leaves your authentic self behind.

In the film Chariots of Fire, someone says, regarding Eric Liddle's refusal to race on the Sabbath, that the boy's faith needs to be honored; that the Olympics officials made a mistake when they "sought to sever his running from himself." In the same way, you can't separate the writer from the writing. And you can't know yourself---you the person, you the writer---without patience. Patience encourages and underscores the notion that your career is not only a life-long pursuit, but a daily connection to your experience of living it.

Moreover, patience builds faith in one's craft, because craft results only from the slow accumulation of skill---that is, from the mistakes, the breakthroughs, the false starts, the two-steps-forward-one-step-back rhythm that is the writing life. The cultivation of patience---not as a "waiting for things to change," but as a state in and of itself---leads to awareness and self-acceptance, necessary components of artistic command.

Rather than being in a hurry to get somewhere, writers are better served by exploring more fully where they are now---and that requires patience.

In other words, if I were making a sampler to hang on the wall, mine would read, "Lord, grant me patience---and take Your time about it."


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