More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.

                        – – – John Irving

When I decided to tackle my first book, I’d written a number of stories and articles. They were like a sprint. But penning an entire book with a theme, characters, story arcs, one chapter flowing into the next and ending up somewhere that made sense, was a
marathon. I had no idea if I could do it. Could I keep it interesting? Could I write decent dialogue? Did I have the stamina to get through it?

My inner critic had a field day. “What do you know about book writing? You can’t possibly write a whole book. You’re gonna stop on the middle so quit now before you waste your time. 

I didn’t know anything about writing a book, that part was true, but I knew all about stamina. I’d been an athlete, a professional ballet dancer who was trained to push through exhaustion, blisters and sore muscles with a smile on my face. Dancing is a physical
challenge as you work all day long, training, rehearsing and performing. Writing is a mental and emotional challenge but at least when I’m writing, I can pace myself according to my own rhythms. I can take a break when I want to, I can rest when I’m tired and I can eat when I’m hungry.

No two writers work at the same pace. I have a friend who creates entire books over three weeks of long days and sleepless nights. She starts when her deadline is shockingly close and when she’s finished, she’s completely wiped out. I could never do that. It would all be diminishing returns. My habit is to sit down in the morning, write for four or five hours and then I do the rest of my life. I could probably write for longer periods of time but I intend to keep writing and I need to avoid burnout.  

In Stephen King’s novel, Misery, a demented fan traps a writer in her home, breaks his legs, and forces him to pen another book in his series. He’s being forced to write but that isn’t happening to you. You’re not a victim. Nobody is holding a gun to your head. You’re doing it because you want to. During the process, fear and doubt have a way of overpowering desire until you get a firm handle on them. There have been times in my career that I’ve chastised myself with such harsh criticism and judgments, it’s a miracle I survived my own thrashings. But I kept on writing and after a period of time (it felt like forever), I held my first book in my hands. I felt proud of it and I’d built up the stamina to face the next project with less fear and more resolve.

My students often ask me, “How do I get myself to write? I think about it all the time, but something else always comes up and I put it off.” They’re hoping for a magic bullet so when I tell then that they need to schedule their writing sessions and simply show up at the designated time and stay there, they feel disappointed. I understand, but there’s no way around it. You have to show up at the computer like you would for any other appointment and that’s how you build writing endurance.

If you doubt you have what it takes to finish a book, if it seems like an undoable task, think about what you’ve already accomplished in your life. Maybe you worked your ass off in college, doing endless research and pulling all-nighters when finals were coming. Do you have kids and a spouse who run you around every morning, no
matter how well or badly you slept? Or no spouse, so it’s all on you? Maybe you built a business from scratch and learned to think on your feet. Or maybe you spent years caring for a sick relative or friend. All of these things take stamina and lots of it.   

Staying focused for a long period of time requires a generous dose of discipline that eventually turns into consistency, if you keep at it long enough. I see “discipline” as a hard word, suggesting a rigid structure that you take on with unswerving fortitude, staying on track when the going gets rough and never veering off the path. It
speaks of impeccable focus, not allowing yourself to stop until you reach each short term goal no matter how you feel or what arises to try and get in your way. I recall mornings during my ballet training when my mind tried to seduce me into skipping a class or a practice . . . just for today. The internal debate, “should I or shouldn’t I, will I
or won’t I,” was a constant, annoying voice yakking in my head as I showed up for classes and rehearsals each day, committed to my career, dedicated to the training that was required. I got myself to the ballet barre every morning, ignored my internal whining and protests, and kept my eyes on the prize.

That’s when “consistency” kicked in. It’s a softer word that suggests a way of transcending the internal battle altogether. In my experience, if you keep at it, discipline will flow into consistency as a natural progression. We all crave ease and surrender when we write, but you can’t get there until you walk the rocky path leading up to it. After my ballet training had become part of my bones, the debate ended and a gentle flow took its place. I no longer had to
drown out the inner struggle because there was no struggle. I got up and went to class. My staying power improved and I embraced my training with no punishing debates or unnecessary pressure.

Novelist Leon Uris said that in order to become a decent writer, you have to learn to close off the loves and hates that can overwhelm you and wilt your tenacity. He suggests you build enough stamina
to be with your writing 100%. “That’s the bloody price,” he said.

If you can dissolve the thoughts that are interfering with your writing, if you can place your full attention on your work and keep coming back, you will build the stamina it takes to write a book over an extended period of time. If you’re solid and focused, that’s great. If you’re not, just stay with it and you’ll be surprised at how good it
feels to finish one chapter and dream up the next one. And the one after that.