Katherine Paterson’s Pep Talk
At this point I feel I should just say: “Times a’wasting! Stop reading this
note and get back to work.” But I promised to try to cheer you on, so I’ll
do my part, if you’ll promise to get right back to your novel after you’ve
Yes, yes, the hardest part of writing a novel is keeping at it. Some years
ago when I was totally stuck in the first draft of a novel, I was having
lunch with my dear friend, the novelist Mary Lee Settle. “Oh, Mary Lee,” I
moaned, “this is my seventh novel and I haven’t learned a thing.”
“Yes, you have,” she said, fixing her eagle gaze upon my whining face,
“you’ve learned that a novel can be finished.”
So I went home and finished the first draft. Now you’re determined to write
50,000 words in a month. I just said to myself that I had to write two
pages a day before I could do anything else. The margins could be wide and
there was no requirement for quality. I just had to finish the two pages.
Eventually, the log jam broke and I found myself moving forward without
that iron rule.
I aim always to get to the end of the first draft even though all the time
I’m telling myself that I’m writing nothing but garbage that no one on
earth would ever want to read, especially me. But I tell myself that this
poor little attempt, this garbage, deserves a chance. Just as our beautiful
dog Annie, who was the runt of her litter, grew into the most beautiful,
loving dog anyone would want, so there may be hope, even for this pitiful
mess of words I’m accumulating. So I say to myself: Don’t read back too
far, don’t try to start rewriting, just get to the end.
I live in Barre, Vermont which calls itself the “Granite Capital of the
World.” Outside our town are enormous quarries, so when I speak in local
schools every child has a mental picture of a granite quarry. “You know how
hard it is to get granite out of the quarry,” I say. “You have to carefully
score the rock and put the explosive in to make the great granite block
break loose from the face of the stone. Then you have to attach the block
to the chains so that the cranes can lift it slowly out of the hole and put
it on the waiting truck. That’s the first draft. It’s hard, dangerous work,
and when you’ve finished, all you’ve really got is a block of stone. But
now you have something now to work on. Now you can take your block down to
the shed to carve and polish it and turn it into something of beauty.
But first you’ve got to get that block of granite out of the earth,
friends. You won’t have anything to make beautiful until you do that. Now
go back to work. That means you too, Katherine.