Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wordcraft -- Perseverance, iron will & Wodehouse

The cynical will call it coincidence. I call it a message from the Muses when articles in unrelated magazines -- Writer’s Digest and Smithsonian -- simultaneously address the power of willpower.

(Remember last month’s post about subscribing to, and reading, magazines? We have to read to write.)

Okay, the Writer’s Digest version, in its February 2012 issue, was about submitting short stories. But the point of the article was that the author, Jacob M. Appel, won a writing contest with a story that had been rejected seventy-five times. Including a previous rejection from the magazine sponsoring the contest he won. Seventy-five rejections. I find three or four discouraging. And the thought occurred -- what willpower Mr. Appel has.

The Smithsonian article, from December 2011 was a review of the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength . It analyzed the components of nineteenth century explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s legendary determination.

The last story I read about willpower was by inimitable comic writer P.G. Wodehouse. After the equivalent of getting the sand kicked in his face, Wodehouse’s character sends for a book on developing iron will. It includes the usual terrible things like getting out of bed early and taking cold showers, followed by hilarious results.

Stanley didn’t bother with cold showers. In his explorations, he was probably lucky to get enough water to shave with. Which he did every morning, even while companions dropped dead of starvation around him. (Although the artist’s version of his meeting with missionary Dr. Livingstone accompanying this post depicts him with a beard.)

British biographer Tim Jeal, in his analysis of Stanley in Smithsonian, concluded that the explorer’s habitual neatness and order created “an antidote to the destructive capacities of nature all around him.” 
Mental tricks such as neatness may have helped form Stanley’s formidable willpower.

And that and other tricks are ones even sedentary writers can employ.

Focusing on a goal other than our own glorification:  Even if the goal is only to entertain, distracting our fellow beings from their cares is not a light calling.

Keeping things neat:  Besides improving my willpower, I found half a dozen things I’d considered hopelessly lost while cleaning out a bookshelf!

Distracting ourselves from the immediate pain of our problems:  Rejection hurts? Write something else. Or send the story to another journal. Or even get a blog post or an article credit out of our rejections. (For further discussion of Stanley’s habits and why they helped, see

And that guy from Writer’s Digest with his seventy-five rejections? Apparently Mr. Appel -- rather, Dr. Appel -- distracted himself by earning degrees in law and medicine. Again, a cynic would wonder what he wants to do when he grows up. But writers rejoice in knowing he’ll never run out of things to write about. Which is the topic for next Wednesday -- the value of nonwriting jobs for writers.


  1. Excellent piece, Melissa. All such good reminders to do the time in the chair. This tip really sticks with me:

    Focusing on a goal other than our own glorification: Even if the goal is only to entertain, distracting our fellow beings from their cares is not a light calling.

    Really needed to read this tonight as I'm working away on Johnnie novel.



  2. Thanks, Kathleen. I look forward to more of "Johnnie." For other readers -- Kathleen Rodgers's military novel, "Final Salute," is now available as an e-book.