Abandon hope…sort of

by Jennifer on March 8, 2008


I found this doormat in a catalog a few years ago, and it makes me laugh. I wouldn’t have the nerve to put it at my front door, but I did save the image to my computer (violating all sorts of copyrights, surely).

The quote itself (minus the small print, of course), comes from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, as an inscription on the entrance to hell. No, I didn’t know that until I looked it up. Yes, it’s fair to question my college curriculum, not to mention what I’ve been doing in the 10 15 18 years since.

At various times, I’ve had it taped to my computer monitor. The words serve as a reality check for me about writing. It’s good to dream of being published, but it probably makes more sense to work hard and develop more discipline. In that case, sort of abandoning hope might be useful, so long as I replace it with something else more practical that might lead to a desired result.

Though you might not think so, it’s a good kick in the pants.

Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone (among others), wrote the foreword to the book Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb*. These few sentences changed my perspective in a significant way:

“…I wrote the following on a piece of paper and taped it above my desk: ‘No one cares.’ It sounds so cold. It looks so cold. But it wasn’t meant that way, not entirely. What I was telling myself was that if I failed, no one would care. If I never published, no one would notice. If I never fulfilled my dream, it wouldn’t make one bit of difference to anyone else on the planet. ‘No one cares’ meant no one was watching, no one was keeping score, no one was judging. I was free. Utterly…And that purified the writing process; it made it about the words and me. That’s it–nothing else in the equation.”

Reading that was very freeing, and it made a lot of sense. By acknowledging that my writing isn’t important to anyone but me (though people who care about me are encouraging and supportive), it means that I can let go of the expectations of anyone else and just do the work, the best work I can.

One more quote, this one from Tobias Wolff’s In Pharoah’s Army: Memories of the Lost War:

I had begun another novel. I knew it wasn’t very good, but I also knew that it was the best I could do just then and that I had to keep doing it if I ever wanted to get better. These words would never be read by anyone, I understood, but even in sinking out of sight they made the ground more solid under my hope to write well. Not that I didn’t like what I was writing as I filled up the pages. Only at the end of the day, reading over what I’d done, working through it with a green pencil, did I see how far I was from where I wanted to be. In the very act of writing I felt pleased with what I did. There was the pleasure of having words come to me, and the pleasure of ordering them, re-ordering them, weighing one against the another. Pleasure also in the imagination of the story, the feeling that it could mean something. Mostly I was glad to find out that I could write at all. In writing you work toward a result you won’t see for years, and can’t be sure you’ll ever see. It takes stamina and self-mastery and faith. It demands those things of you, then gives them back with a little extra, a surprise to keep you coming. It toughens you and clears your head. I could feel it happening. I was saving my life with every word I wrote, and I knew it.

I should read that last line every day. That, and the one from Lehane that says “No one cares.” And if you put them together? It’s some damn good advice.


*I don’t buy many books about writing, but I bought this one because I heard Ann Rittenberg speak once and I’m hoping she will represent me someday. (This book is a must-buy, and is chock-full of excellent information and advice.) On her website, there’s a transcript of an interesting speech she gave at Bennington College about the kind of writing she looks for as an agent, and about her interaction with the clients she represents. (And, while you’re there, please beg her not to sue me for printing that excerpt.)

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

the mama bird diaries March 8, 2008 at 10:03 pm

Quotes can be amazingly inspiring. Thanks for sharing this.

Brenda March 8, 2008 at 10:33 pm

Waiting….. just waiting, for more writing. For the book. Will wait patiently.

we_be_toys March 8, 2008 at 11:55 pm

Wonderful advice that I need to copy down and put over MY computer!

You’ve summed up beautifully how I feel about writing as well; none of it might be any good, it might never be noticed, but I still NEED to write, not for anyone else but ME.

Mrs. Chili March 9, 2008 at 4:34 am

Writing is spiritual work, I think. To see it as anything less demeans its importance to the writer.

I teach writing, and I try very hard to get across to my students that part of the reason they think it’s “SO HARD” is precisely BECAUSE it’s spiritual work. They don’t believe me, but usually by the end of the semester I’ve got one or two students for whom the light bulb clicks. They recognize that the act of writing is the act of putting a part of oneself down on paper – to (perhaps) be seen and understood and absorbed and criticized and appropriated by others. It is a permanent testament to who we are at this moment.

Big stuff, that.

Oh, and I knew about the quote, but only because I LOVE the idea of an incremental Hell. Go here and find out which circle you’ll end up in – it’s a hoot:


dragonfly March 9, 2008 at 4:59 am

I like to write for myself. Maybe someday it’ll be more than that, but for now…

Mostly unrelated…I gobbled up Laura Whitcomb’s novel, A Certain Slant of Light. And I liked it enough that I bought a copy for myself after I read the library book. 🙂

slouching mom March 9, 2008 at 7:00 am

I really like the Wolff quote.

Have you read Stephen King’s On Writing? I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did.

Slow Panic March 9, 2008 at 7:23 am

This was a great post. Could you maybe one day write a mediocre or boring post — just so i feel better about myself? I thought you CARED!.

JK. I am fascinated by any creative process. Writing seems so hard. BTW -you are totally getting published some day.

Angela March 9, 2008 at 9:49 am

Her speech is inspiring stuff. I used to long to be published, and I have been before, in small and larger ways. But lately, I’m trying to love the process for itself. I’m trying to take my time and learn what I can from writing, simply, in my own way. I would hate to ever get to a place where my writing becomes my work, and I live under the pressure to “publish or perish.” This was such an enlightening post…truly.

HRH March 9, 2008 at 1:44 pm

I am a bit freaked out because that quote is hanging here (without the fine print). I have been trying to figure out how to use it…I may just need to buy the doormat.

sandy (momisodes) March 9, 2008 at 2:32 pm

Those are some great quotes. My first time reading all. I think I many need to tape the first to my computer too…thanks for sharing 🙂

flutter March 9, 2008 at 2:58 pm

I have to go cry now.

a March 9, 2008 at 4:42 pm

Thanks for this post – I needed some inspiration today. What a wonderful twist on the phrase “No one cares”. I may have to start using that myself.

Kelley March 9, 2008 at 5:48 pm

Wow – thanks for posting this. One of the reasons I write my blog is to force myself to make sure I’m writing *something* every day, even if I’m not feeling it. This reminds me that I should be writing things I’m not comfortable with either if I want to find a place where I am comfortable. (If that makes any sense at all…)

Kellan March 9, 2008 at 6:33 pm

This was all great advice. I think one of the biggest blessings I have found as a writer – is blogging. It gives us permission to write every word – whenever they come – however they come!! It is a blessing to just have those words be put down daily – be heard.

Thanks so much for coming by today and leaving the kind thoughts and prayers for our sweet little baby! I hope you’ve had a good weekend! I’ll see you soon. Kellan

Mrs. G. March 9, 2008 at 7:08 pm

I have to write for myself or it rings untrue and lacks soul. If I start thinking about who is going to read my stuff too much, I start freaking out.

Great quotes.

Hatchet March 9, 2008 at 7:50 pm

Don’t be silly! Just chant “Fair use! Fair use! Fair use!” and you’ll be just fine. : )

I do like the idea of not having to impress anyone and writing just for oneself. I just try to ensure that when I read my own writing that I can hear it in my own voice. And it has to make me smile. Bonus when others smile, too.

ByJane March 10, 2008 at 11:56 am

I’ve just printed this post. And gotten the link to it–’cause I think I have to write about this myself

Crazycath March 12, 2008 at 8:44 am

Very thought provoking. Love the song. I’m linking you if that’s ok. I love the way you write and put down your first thoughts and then cross them out – it’s great. Adds levity without losing the message.

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