What It Means to Persist (Or, POV Still Sucks)

What it means to persist as a writer

What It Means to Persist (Or, POV Still Sucks)

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Longtime readers may recall the last time I tangled with point of view, a bruising scuffle that yielded this post: “Getting Unstuck in Your Writing (Or, POV Is a Bastard).”

First of all, a disclaimer. If you find mastering point of view to be challenging, there is nothing wrong with you as a writer. POV is a nasty little bastard, full of crumbling edges and moving tectonic plates, and one I struggle to articulate even after 30 years of studying and teaching this s***.

So much so that I drafted and very nearly sent to Jane Friedman, for whom I am creating an upcoming master class series on the topic, a panicked email about how I wasn’t going to be able to teach this slippery subject after all.

I had to go back and read my own post about the last time POV and I went toe-to-toe to calm my ass down and get hold of myself, and luckily I did that before I hit send on that email.

When you struggle and falter and feel as if you can’t see the way through, what does persisting even mean?

Because this is often what a career in the creative arts is, friends. For all its rewards, it can be immensely challenging. That’s why perhaps the most commonly given writing advice if you want to succeed is to persist.

Which sounds great and all, but how in the hell are you supposed to do that exactly when you’re getting your rear end handed to you by what you’re working on? When the core skills of the career you’re trying to build seem to be just outside your reach? When you struggle and falter and feel as if you can’t see the way through, what does persisting even mean?

Persistence in Action

Here’s what persistence looked like for me this weekend as I kept pounding away at a subject I was increasingly sure that not only I could not solve, but that there were no solutions to be had—that point of view was simply an impossible nut to crack, and good luck to you all authors in trying to deal with it—may the odds be ever in your favor.

The first step in crises like these is to calm myself down so I’m not getting myself too wrapped around the axle to access the rational, objective parts of me that can solve this problem.

When I have time that can mean putting something away for a while and working on other things, or taking a few days just to percolate, but I had a due date on this and didn’t have the luxury. But no matter how pressing your deadlines, there’s always time for a few soothing breaths, so I did that, stopped for dinner, and vented to my husband using the kind of Cartman-level cursing I blush to think about coming from my delicate little rosebud mouth.

Even as I was indulging my farthest-fetched fears and frustrations about the subject and why on Earth I ever agreed to teach it, or even thought I could, the sheer ridiculousness of my rant let me see the humor. I have been working in my field for more than three decades, and on thousands of manuscripts. I have taught POV for many years. I have written a book on storytelling craft, one including point of view—a chapter which, for the record, also kicked me to the mat a few times before I finally said what I wanted to say about POV.

My husband is usually the perfect sounding board at moments like this, gently reminding me that this sort of thing happens a lot when I’m working on particularly challenging topics, but I’ve been through this wringer so many times by now that he didn’t even have to. I did it for myself as I ranted, eventually swinging around in my soliloquy to this point of the process:

“I don’t even know why I agree to do things like this. I have no idea why I thought I could teach a master class on this subject. I knew how much I hate point of view. Why do I do this to myself?

“Well, on some level I must like it or I wouldn’t keep doing it, right? That would be crazy. Clearly this is part of my process. In fact, Adam Grant talks about how the demons that we often bemoan like impostor syndrome and perfectionism are actually the very things that push us to strive for excellence and help fuel our persistence and eventual mastery of things. This is just how I work, isn’t it?

“And you know, I do this every time. I take on more than I think I can handle and swing for the fences and then doubt whether I can actually do it—but I always do it. I have never totally dropped the ball. I always manage to turn out something that is at least good enough. So why do I think every time that this time I’m not going to do the same thing? That doesn’t make any sense. I just have to keep at it, because I know I know this, but it may be a little harder than some other projects. And that’s okay. That’s the process.”

By this time I’d managed to get myself under control and I was back in my rational, thinking brain, determination and confidence restored, ready to head back in and battle with the bastard that is point of view, knowing that eventually I’m going to get that little sucker’s neck under my knee.

I’d like to point out that during this entire monologue, my husband spoke not at all. He has learned that I have assembled the right tools for moments like this, and all he has to do is stand there and let me feverishly rummage through my toolbox until I find the ones I need so I can do the damn job.

Persist in Persisting

That’s what persistence is. it means pushing past discomfort. Past frustration and self-doubt and despair.

But knowing how to deal with it doesn’t happen unless you have spent time throughout your career assembling all these tools you might need and learning how to use them. That process takes time and diligence and practice, over and over and over until you get to the point where you can see the problem, diagnose it quickly, instinctively grab the tool you need, and get to work.

That, too, is what it means to persist: not just building that muscle, but using it regularly, no matter how unpleasant that might feel—the same way that when I do my morning push-ups every single day, I gripe about why it never gets any easier. But the fact that I do them every single day is why I can do them at all. If I let those muscles atrophy, they’re not going to get me off the floor when I’m in a face-plant.

You have to keep doing hard things because it’s the only way to get you where you want to go.

Luckily a writing career offers you infinite opportunities to work those muscles, because of all its many challenges that never get any easier, friends. These things that vex you now aren’t because you haven’t learned well enough or don’t have enough talent or skill or experience. They will likely always trouble you from time to time—because this is what a creative career is, just like getting and staying in shape. You have to keep doing hard things because it’s the only way to get you where you want to go.

I am nearing the finish line of my next book for authors that I’ve been working on for quite a while, not coincidentally a survival guide of skills for how to master tools like this that help authors build and sustain a successful and happier writing career. (The Intuitive Author—stay tuned!)

The first chapter is foundational to the entire book, setting up its core ideas about these essential skills for authors, and while the rest of it is ready to go, this crucial key chapter just wouldn’t quite come together.

Using the tools I’ve spent my career developing, I persisted, and finally I found the answer—the exact same issue that had kept my last book, Intuitive Editing, from feeling fully cohesive until one of my beta readers for that book pointed it out and helped me solve it (hat tip to Lainey Cameron!). 

We may keep making the same mistakes, facing the same challenges, and missing the same blind spots in our work. Persisting doesn’t mean that you get to the point where that never happens. It means that when it does—and it will…it always will—you know how to fix it and have your tools at hand, maybe not immediately, but eventually.

And guess where that magical land of “eventually” lies, friends? At the end of the rocky path of persistence.

Talk to me, authors. What does persistence look like for you? How do you remind yourself to push through and persist in those literary dark nights of the soul? I love to read your processes!

If you struggle with POV, I feel your pain. Join me to work through this little bastard in my upcoming live webinar series with Jane Friedman, “POV Mastery,” a three-part master class on crafting narrative perspectives.

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21 Comments. Leave new

  • Elena Brunn
    July 4, 2024 11:00 am

    It’s always good to hear such confessions from a pro. Thanks, Tiffany.

    As for me, I dwell on what moved me to write the piece in the first place. And if it’s fiction, I think about the characters who need me. I have to find a way out so that they may live.

    Reply
    • I love that, Elena. Your technique of focusing on your motivations is one I use a lot, too–it reminds me to work inside out, not outside in, which is worrying about the results rather than focusing on the work. And I love your sense of responsibility to your characters. 🙂

      Reply
  • Lainey Cameron
    July 4, 2024 11:24 am

    For me persistence is this second book I’m working on right now. I’ve rewritten it 3 times and it’s frustrating when you realize you haven’t quite nailed it yet – and need to start again.

    But the difference between this and my debut novel, is this time I know it may take time but with help and insight from my writer friends I still believe I will get there.

    That confidence is invaluable and makes the process (and the starting again so much more bearable!).

    PS thx for the call out – I love Intuitive Editing!

    Reply
    • You are always so determined and resilient with your work, Lainey. Revisions can be really frustrating–especially when you feel you have to backtrack and start over. But that faith you have in yourself is what I think is key in allowing authors to persist–the confidence in yourself, as you say, that you can do it. Eventually! 🙂

      And you’re welcome. It’s deserved–you know how grateful I am to you for your laser eye and insights on that book.

      Reply
  • Christina Anne Hawthorne
    July 4, 2024 12:40 pm

    Hahaha. Been there, done that, though I don’t have another human to vent to. I’d probably be better off if I did since I tend to dish up a healthy course of sarcasm at myself.

    That wasn’t always the case, but time and, well, more time have left me a little jaded when it comes to the same old rants (with some growls thrown in).

    Typically, my self-response sounds a bit like, “Really, we’re having this conversation again? How many times have you already made it through this? Have you ever failed to get it right in the end? I don’t think so! You wouldn’t still be writing if you hadn’t.”

    At some point, those growls become guffaws.

    I look forward to that next book!

    Reply
    • Hey, venting to ourselves works just fine! If I’m honest, that’s basically what I was doing while my husband just spectated. 🙂

      Love that you eventually get to the ridiculousness and humor too. That’s a saving grace for me–if I can find the funny in it, it takes away the problem’s stinger and lets me get down to work. Thanks for sharing!

      Reply
  • I don’t usually have dark nights around my writing, but I have been recently. Persistence worked for me in other areas of my life, going to law school at age 30+ while being the parent of 3 kids under 12 and married to a charming but irresponsible man. I came through totally by means of persistence. Didn’t hope for rescue and swallowed disappointments and refused to be daunted by challenges. So will this attitude work with my writing. I hope so. Thanks for the coaching.

    Reply
    • Wow, Ruchama, that’s an achievement with law school. I’m sorry you’ve had some hard times in your writing lately. Hang in there–these things seem to be cyclical, and I hope it gets easier soon.

      Reply
  • Thanks for delivering for us on a national holiday, Tiffany. If that’s not persistence, it’s at least somewhere out there on the extra mile.
    I live in first person, so I write in first person. Partly because, since it’s how I see the world, so do my characters; partly because it keeps me close to who and what I’m writing about. First person has its limitations. In my first novel, a hero’s journey, when I felt it was in the best interest of the story, I let the appropriate character speak in first person. The reader got a first hand dose of their their thoughts and feelings as well as their appearance and behavior. (Of course, I made the change of POV clear to the reader to avoid the unacceptable head-hop.) I think it worked.
    Writing fiction, non-fiction, rants, essays, articles, stories, and courses produces the printed page, which looks smooth, nicely finished, and occasionally even professional. It doesn’t come that way, which for me, is where persistence enters the picture. I just spent ten days producing a sixteen hundred word summary of a seventy-three thousand word novel. If I’d had any hair, I might have torn some of it out. But I finally got something I felt I could show my writing buddies and ask their help on. (The jury’s still out.)
    I still don’t know where my writing comes from, I’m just glad it comes. Even when it doesn’t come on my schedule. Unlike you, Tiffany, I don’t have deadlines now. I’ve had them in the past, and they add a dimension to the struggle. Sometimes, I had to take a walk around the block; When that wasn’t enough, sometimes I had to change the direction of the writing.
    I’ve said it before, but when I think of quitting–of doing something else, I can think of things that I might find less frustrating, but I can never think of anything better to do.

    Reply
    • Hello, Bob! You’re right about the finished product not reflecting the (occasional) agony that went into getting it written and polished. It’s funny how much work it takes to make something feel smooth and easy.

      I’ve always been very motivated by deadlines–even in school. I like the structure and the goalpost–it adds an extra layer of motivation for me. That’s one reason I think I’ve flourished in publishing–it’s as deadline-oriented as businesses come. I had to put one on myself to get this book finished up, in fact…I think without them I might be a procrastinator. 🙂

      Love your barometer of persisting. My version of that is similar–in the past I’ve asked myself if I’d quit if I knew I’d never hit the highest heights…if my dreams and goals were still important to me without that brass ring. That’s my way of assessing whether it’s the process I value, more than some anticipated reward. So far it’s a resounding yes with editing…for better than thirty years now. I love that you’re still saying yes to writing as well. Happy Fourth!

      Reply
  • Deborah Sword
    July 5, 2024 1:55 am

    All those times in my life that my stubbornness is a curse and cursed, I can reframe as persistence. When I am too damn stubborn to quit, and too hardheaded to accept I can’t do it, I’m just being persistent. Who knew!

    Reply
  • Claudia Lynch
    July 5, 2024 3:09 pm

    When someone says, “You’re so talented!” I often respond, “I’m really just stubborn.” Meaning, I’m persistent. I’m willing to do the Stephen King thing — keep my butt in the chair until I’ve made something good. Calling it “talent” makes it sound like a magic trick, negating all the hours it took to massage it into being (and taking others off the hook for doing it too). I read recently that “Talent is pursued interest” (and I just looked that up and it’s a quote from Bob Ross, haha). Excelsior!

    Reply
    • Great quote, Claudia (and who doesn’t love Bob Ross?). I do think there are varying degrees of inborn facility with any skill, but yeah, I am 100 percent with you–the real secret sauce is persistence, consistency, practice, and work. I find that lovely, actually–it always suggests to me that if I’m willing to put the time and effort into something, I can get good at it. (We shall not discuss my abysmal dancing when I tried to learn hip-hop. Sometimes no amount of work is going to overcome natural shortcomings… 😉 )

      Reply
  • I persist because I love spending time with my characters. I do this for a few hours daily and don’t care how many words I write. I know my characters and the story are progressing, and I want them to overcome their challenges and achieve their goals. I have also found it useful to monitor progress over periods of time: a week, a month, or more.
    In the past, I spent a lot of time thinking about POV and found it somewhat confusing, so I sympathise with your struggles to teach it. Although I think you explain it well in Intuitive Editing. I don’t have a problem with POV when writing as I only use close third. I become my character when writing, and it becomes straightforward. Happy Independence Day from England. You seem to have done quite well without us, apart from spelling. 😊

    Reply
    • What a great way to think of it–spending time with your characters, helping them achieve their goals. It’s funny how alive they can truly become to us, isn’t it? Makes sense, though–we spend so much time getting to them intimately…just as we do with our close friends.

      I like your progress monitoring too. It’s so easy to measure ourselves against the lacks–where we fall short of what we strive for. So much healthier to measure by how far we’ve come instead.

      Oh, POV is my nemesis. I always figure it out, but it fights me every time. I joke that it’s like the Supreme Court judge’s infamous definition of porn: that he can’t define it, but he knows it when he sees it. I always feel that way with POV–I know it when I’m editing, but ask me to articulate it and it’s pulling teeth. Slippery little bastard! I certainly get why authors can struggle with it.

      Thanks for sharing your techniques!

      Reply
    • Garry LaFollette
      July 6, 2024 6:14 am

      I respect and enjoy the many different ways of thinking I read in these replies each week. Sometimes going ‘wow, I’ve never looked at it that way’. Rarer still is when I read something that I already had in mind to include in my reply . . . you said it exactly as I was thinking it; ‘I enjoy spending time with my characters’

      Reply
  • I do a wash and repeat. You know, like when you worked in an office and nothing could get done before the pencils were sharpened and the coffee made. That’s what I do. And, I start again. Also, I have a calendar, a large one, and I record the blocks of time spent writing. In color, mind. So red one week; then, blue another, etc. I can look back at and say, “See. Persist. You did it.”

    Reply
    • I love that visual representation of your consistency! I always think showing up is nine-tenths of anything, really. I think it’s James Clear, in Atomic Habits, who talks about the kind of calendar marking you do to denote your progress, and how motivating it can be in building a habit–which is just persistence consistently, right? Thanks for sharing this!

      Reply
  • Garry LaFollette
    July 6, 2024 8:38 am

    Thirty some years ago I read an M.C. Escher quote that floored me. This may be a slight paraphrase, but in essence, ‘I don’t have any talent. The only reason I’m able to create anything is because I want to so badly.’

    Obviously Escher had immense talent, and obviously his had considerable self-doubt as well. But to grab the low hanging fruit from those words and do the ‘doubting our talent is a natural thing, I shouldn’t give my doubts so much power’ is to miss the larger point. Escher didn’t consider his works to be the product of talent. He saw them as the product of desire.

    Wanting to do it badly enough was all he believed it took.

    When we tie ourselves up in questioning our abilities the underlying assumption is ‘if I’m not good at this, if I don’t have talent for this, I won’t be able to do it’ What if Escher was right? That ability isn’t worth fretting over. What matters is wanting to achieve our vision.

    In the past couple of days I’ve been slogging my way through a scene I’ve yet to be happy with even as I should. I’ve got two characters, strong personalities both, distinctive voices, but I’ve not been able to make it work. But every freaking morning I’m writing the damn chapter again because I enjoy these two characters so much and I want to see them at their most interesting and conflicting best.

    And that wanting overrides whatever sense there might otherwise be that ‘I’m not going to get anywhere today’ or ‘I can’t make this work’. The desire to plunge back in with them and see what happens remains independent of whatever frustration the past days of not making progress might have generated.

    Reply
    • I love this perspective, Garry. I do believe we all have varying degrees of inborn ability at various pursuits, but I agree with you that there’s a hell of a lot desire and dogged determination and hard work can do to bridge any talent gap.

      If we can hold on to what you describe–that animating spark of desire to just spend time with our characters, our worlds, our stories, to me that not only makes us better writers, but happier ones. There are so damned many hard things about pursuing a creative life–the heart of leading a fulfilling one seems as if it has to be that passion, that enjoyment of the work itself. Thanks for sharing this.

      Reply

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