Perseveration and Perseverance and the Novel

Treasure Hunt: morning coffee + milk

I am drowning today. I woke up feeling awful about my novel. Like wondering-why-I’m-even-doing-this awful. And I felt even more hideous knowing that I’d continue to re-write despite my despondence. And yet even more horrific because then of course all this self-doubt was a massive waste of time, keeping me from said novel-rewrite.

On these self-doubting occasions, I feel like my novel is an act of perseveration–of crazy unfulfilling repetition that speaks to the adage, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

That line speaks not to perseverance but to perseveration, which is an actual psychological term describing unhealthy behavior repetition.

There’s a difference between perseveration and perseverance. Perseverance, which is steady persistence (and a novel-writing virtue) towards a goal despite obstacles and discouragement has value in the effort whereas perseveration recreates old, unresolved issues (i.e., like how someone who felt left out in junior high then ends up, in her adult life, trying to connect with people who reject her–or at its simplest, repetition of spoken phrases).

It’s when I fail to see value in the process and effort, that I feel like writing this novel is an act of insanity.

One of the most hurtful things someone has ever said to me (other than the time someone told me, “My husband will not be happy if I get fat–but your husband doesn’t seem to care!”) is “Are you still working on that novel? Finish it already.” That a novel is solely about a finished product is false–that a novel’s value is positioned solely in its finished product is daunting and stomach-turning, at least for someone in the thicket of revision.

And yet, because of this end goal, I push. I push.

And sometimes, it’s the pushing that is the wrong thing to do with my novel-in-progress.

I’ve taken up yoga in the past year or so. After living in yoga-infused-Berkeley for decades and scoffing at the practice, I found a yoga instructor and studio in Tara Stiles and Strala Yoga in NYC that did not make me feel alienated or like I landed on Mars or had me speaking a foreign language in class.

I learned that yoga isn’t about pushing. It’s about being in the moment, and connecting with your breath and going with the ease. That anything is possible. That I can do crow and when I did crow, the moment felt utterly effortless and beautiful and marvelous. That it happened like magic one day. That getting to crow and holding crow meant staying very much in the present moment. That pushing to do crow was the very thing that made me topple.

It is hard to fight self doubt. Maybe it might be better to cave into it and process the feelings that self doubt brings. Either way, I thought that by writing about my self doubt and defining the creature that embodies it in my life today, I’ll know better how to manage it.

That I am pushing to “finish” my novel is what stalls me–that I fail to see value in the process and the present moment of revision is what pushes me to doubt myself.

So I downloaded my yoga class playlist and I’m writing to it this morning, so that what I learn in yoga can infuse me as a writer today. No pushing. Just be. Write the words. Breathe. Listen to my novel. Listen to me. Allow myself to cry. So that I can amaze myself.


Filed under Novel, Revision, The Personal, Writing

8 responses to “Perseveration and Perseverance and the Novel

  1. I agree with all you’ve written here. The only way, sometimes, I can get through a big project like a novel is to remember that the parts I love best about writing it are getting to just hang out and be in that world I’ve created. And savor it. Which seems to be the opposite of “finishing” it. And which helps me, ironically, finish it.

  2. Great distinction!

    It helps me to think of it all as a process. Don’t look at the big picture! If I turn the crank long enough, it’ll happen. And I’m going to LOVE it and HATE it and LOVE it all over again. And it helps that I have a perhaps unhealthy drive to complete things.

    Yes! Just be.

  3. Oh my word…such a beautiful post! I’d never heard of perseveration, but I certainly know how you feel when the questions come: “How are submissions going? Any word from your agent yet?” In the meantime, I’m telling myself the rejections have no reflection on my current WIP. Easier said than believed, but you wrote exactly what I needed to read this afternoon: Just be. Write the words. Breathe. Listen to my novel. Listen to me. Allow myself to cry. So that I can amaze myself.

    • @Ericka: We should enjoy the worlds we create, more!
      @Tamara: John Gardner wrote that obsession is part of a novelist’s genetic makeup–otherwise we’d never finish our work. 😉
      @Stephanie: thank you! and i hope you have given yourself permission to amaze yourself today. 🙂 (and tomorrow…and the day after…)

  4. akwhitacre

    The “crazy” adage: one thing it’s always left out is that the “result” must be guaranteed to be the same every time. If the result can change — if a person can finish a novel they’ve struggled with — then they can’t be crazy. 🙂

    Or well, at least not crazy about the novel.

  5. LauraMaylene

    I am still too much in shock over that “husband/fat” comment a real live person apparently actually said to you…can’t add anything else to this discussion. Damn.

    Someone did once say to me, “Oh, I always thought all vegetarians were so skinny. But you? You’re…healthy.” With bold quote marks around the word “healthy.”

  6. Ugh. You talking about people asking you when you’re going to finish your novel brings up bad memories of people asking the same about my memoir. I’m astonished by people, like an author I heard read tonight, who write books in a year and a half. Wow. Just wow. But we shall trudge on, and we shall succeed!

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