On sailing, artistic perseverance, and how our perception of an object affects our understanding of it
Vol. 1, Issue 10
One summer during college, I joined the university sailing club. For a few ambitious weekends, I did my very best to learn how to tack and jibe in a plucky yellow dinghy with heavy canvas sails. But one afternoon, my partner and I got caught on Lake Mendota when an unexpected storm flared up, and we found ourselves struggling against waves and wind significantly above our sailing rate.
We managed to get close enough to shore for a more experienced sailor to yell directions about how to get our dinghy to the dock. I was cold, wet, and embarrassed to have failed around so helplessly in front of more than a few concerned onlookers.
I wish I could look back and say the experience motivated me to hit the water again the next day and improve my skills and confidence with the boat. But in truth, I was working full-time that summer, and I’d hoped that sailing would be an easy hobby to pick up. I hadn’t wanted to make a major commitment in terms of time and effort. And since I didn’t take to it naturally, my nineteen-year-old self just assumed I wasn’t any good at it. I went out on the lake half-heartedly a couple more times but was relieved when my membership expired.
I’ve been thinking a lot about failure and persistence lately. It’s “official” now that my novel on submission needs a significant revision before my agent sends it back out to more potential publishers. And so, last week I laid out the pages of the manuscript on the floor of my bedroom and rearranged the chapters in all sorts of different orders to find a snappier, more commercial structure and pace. I’ve been reading and line editing and deleting. It’s been painful. A little embarrassing, even. I wish, of course, that I’d have successfully written the perfect draft the first time. I wish this whole process was easier. I wish I was better at this.
But I’m not permanently discouraged. Truly, I’m not. I’m old enough now, with more than a few professional and personal failures under my belt, to recognize that I want to publish a book enough to stick with it. So I will keep wrestling with it, keep tacking and jibing until I get the manuscript pointed in the direction it needs to go.
Eventually, it’ll make it ashore.
One of the instrumental songs on my writing playlist this summer is aptly named “Bowsprit,” the forward spar on a sailboat. Extra sails are attached to the bowsprit, which allows for faster movement through water.
Psychologist Angela Duckworth on the art of teaching perseverance to your kids, Motherly (Podcast). “Angela Duckworth is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, which talks about how the combination of passion and persistence is more important than talent when it comes to succeeding in life.”
Grit: The dark side of deciding to ‘tough it out,’ BBC.
“Essentially, grit is shorthand for privilege … Ultimately, applauding individual grit can’t be grounds for offloading systemic and structural responsibility.”
Derek Muller is a physicist who makes videos to educate public about math and science. This particular video, about our perception of an object’s color while in motion, is an interesting metaphor for approaching a text or art piece at different points in space (and time!) in order to better comprehend its component parts.
You go on. You set one foot in front of the other, and if a thin voice cries out, somewhere behind you, you pretend not to hear, and keep going.
I started my revision process by reading the manuscript again from start to finish, something I haven’t done in months. It was hard to force myself to embark on that reading, but midway through the book, I realized I was enjoying the story and characters. It felt good to revisit the small town setting and wander around that world again. By the end, I knew that I still loved this book, and enough time has passed since I first wrote it that I can see certain elements of it with fresh, compassionate eyes. Some necessary edits are obvious now in a way they weren’t before.
This week I suggest revisiting an old work of your own. Maybe it’s a short story or poem that never found a published home or an art project that’s ninety-percent finished or an old photo in need of a re-edit. Whatever it is, try approaching it as a reader or viewer rather than as a maker. Try to experience the piece as-is, and then play gentle critic and ask how that experience could be different in some way. Tinker with it a bit, with no pressure to “fix it” or “start over.” See what happens.