Iron Ass: What It Takes to Keep the Writing Dream Alive

By Daniel Ford

Author and journalist Tom Shroder gave a fitting description to his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather MacKinley Kantor during our recent podcast interview: “He just had this iron will and a steel butt.”

Shroder’s The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived features a wonderful story about Kantor doggedly typing out a novel during a stormy sea voyage with one hand while his other held down his typewriter. I’ll echo Shroder’s own reaction to the tale by saying, “Jesus.” Odds are I’ve looked at least 50 tweets since I started this piece, and I’m on solid ground.

I typically don’t give a lot of thought to why I’m a writer. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. The impulse to put words to paper is the first thing I think about when my caffeine-deprived brain wakes up in the morning. And if I don’t do enough writing during the day (which is often the case, sadly), then it’s the last thing I feel guilty about when I finally pass out well past my bedtime. The iron will Shroder mentioned allows me to keep at it, even when the steel butt isn’t quite willing or able.   

As often happens when you sit down with an old friend you haven’t seen in more than a decade, you learn things about yourself that prompt you to reflect on your life through a different lens. Stephanie Schaefer and I were in Nashville recently, and we had the opportunity to share a few cocktails with someone I knew from high school. He couldn’t get over the fact I was still a writer. He complimented my work, as well as Writer’s Bone’s success, and I was self-deprecating to the point I thought Steph’s eyes were going to lodge in the back of her head. He mentioned that he always wanted to write a novel and that he couldn’t get past the first chapter of anything he started.

Even with him puffing me up, I couldn’t help but think of all the notes cluttering my Moleskin notebook, and the typed pages featured red cross-outs and dejected notes in the margin. My unfinished work outweighs my published/finished work by several oil barges. During my trip to Nashville I came up with an idea that has Sean Tuohy salivating, yet, it sits in my text messages like an unwanted pile of week-old McNuggets.

I do feel proud of stories like “343” and “Cherry on Top,” but I view them more as next steps in my evolution as an author. I’ve conditioned my mind to think about what’s next rather than what’s been. Otherwise, I’d get bogged down in all the ideas that have slipped out of my mind, and all the tossing and turning that occurs while trying to tune out (or tune into) characters that demand their stories told. So it’s less an iron will and more of an anxiety-filled compulsion whose rewards (not monetary, of course) are so intoxicating that you could never imagine stepping off the literary roller coaster ride you’re strapped into.

Look, for all of the above reasons, writing is an insane profession that you have to be half-crazy to want to aspire to be in it. The following passage from Hassel Velasco’s “To Live And Write In L.A.” series is about love, but it could easily refer to writing:

You could also beg for mercy, and let life put you out of your misery before love sinks its razor sharp claws deep into you. I had been avoiding this scenario for as long as I could, but I found myself entering the arena again, yes, naked and unarmed, locking eyes with the beast and hoping it wanted to devour me as much as I wanted it to. However, I learned that there's no use in living a life without love, there's no point in living if you're not willing to be vulnerable and be eaten alive. You don't really live until you're ready to die.

(By the way, Hassel, that series ends when we say it ends. Vive la “To Live and Write In L.A.!”)

The other day, author Nicole Blades offered up sensational advice to aspiring authors, which serves as the perfect ending to this rambling start to what I hope will be a continuing essay series:

“Find your voice and rock with that.”

And so I shall.

The Writer’s Bone Essays Archives