No Excuses, by Louise DeSalvo
April 7, 2010
I had dinner with a writer friend last night, a hard working woman I’ve known for years. She’s had times when she wondered whether she’d get another contract, times when publishers have wanted her to write three books, and pronto. She’s been writing through all the years I’ve known her, and she’s in a field where you have to hustle to get work, where people who are very well known tend to get attention. Still, she’s done her work, and the last book she published (I can’t name how many she’s written, but it’s near twenty if not more) finally got the recognition she’s deserved since the beginning of her career – it’s been a bestseller on many lists for the past several months.
Through it all, she’s just hunkered down and done her work. She hasn’t waited for the right time to work, for her health challenges to diminish, for the world to want her work. She’s made connections, honored her art, written every day no matter what.
We got to talking about a mutual acquaintance, a woman who’s never had the stellar writing career she’s always wanted. Truth is, she hasn’t done anything to deserve it. She’s always talking about why now is not the right time to be writing; about how a book she wrote didn’t get the attention she deserves; about how the publishing industry isn’t what it used to be; about how the editors aren’t worth anything any more. She’s found more excuses than you can think of to keep herself away from the desk and because she doesn’t show up, nothing gets written. Still, she keeps blaming everyone but herself for her lack of fulfillment as a writer.
There are two books I keep near my desk to remind myself that if we’re “real” writers, we permit ourselves no excuses to keep ourselves away from our work for any length of time.
The first is Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison. I’m not going to write very much about this amazing book because I suggest you read it for yourself to understand what one woman went through to get the truth out about conditions inside a woman’s prison in Egypt. What I will say – if you don’t know anything about her – is that Saadawi is an important Egyptian feminist, medical doctor, and a writer. She’s campaigned for women’s rights in Egypt ever since I’ve known her. She was imprisoned in 1981 for “crimes against the State” and was incarcerated until after Anwar Sadat was assassinated.
What’s important for us is that Nawal El Saadawi wrote on pieces of toilet paper while she was inside the prison using the stub of a pencil. Imagine. She didn’t tell herself that she’d wait until she was released; she wrote because she wanted the story to be immediate, to reflect what she observed as she was living it. Of course, she could have been penalized even more than she was for doing her life’s work under the most diabolical circumstances. But she carried on. No excuses.
I met Nawal El Saadawi at a women’s conference in Barcelona. (I don’t remember the date now.) I was in her presence when she called her husband in Egypt and learned that she couldn’t come home because it would be too dangerous for her. Still, she kept writing. No excuses.
The other work I keep near me is E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. This is a first-hand account of these battles and what it was like to be a young Marine during World War II. If you’re a TV watcher, it’s one of the memoirs that the current HBO series on the Pacific is based upon.
Sledge kept his notes on pieces of paper and hid them in a copy of the New Testament. The Armed Forces forbid its soldiers to write accounts of the war, but Sledge defied those orders, and wrote down what he experienced. Because he was a member of the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, Sledge was participant in, and witness to, some of the most horrific fighting of that war. The memoir has been called one of the five most important books about twentieth-century battles.
Imagine. Being a Marine during the most devastating battles of the war and writing your account no matter what. No excuses.
Sledge had a difficult adjustment to civilian life. He was a victim of a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. He had his notes, but he didn’t write his book for some time. His wife, though, urged him, and he learned that the writing of his account of the war helped him immeasurably even though he had to revisit the horror of his experience. Revisit, not relive. And so we have this account to remind us of what a generation experienced.
I suggest you find two books that might inspire you to take yourself in hand so that you work through whatever you live through. If you don’t, that time will pass, and you will have no writing to show for it. Writing will help you get through it all, no matter what it is.