17 October, 2021

Alan Heathcock on Patience

Bryan Camp’s opinion piece here last February, “Patience, Grasshopper,” offers important advice to students of writing: “…be humble. Recognize that the journey from apprentice to master is a long one and that no one ever stops learning.” The stage of apprenticeship, he writes, is one of unique opportunity, in which humility makes one teachable. Practice and humility are the foundations of change for the writer. Happily, the third component, patience, was addressed in a recent interview with Alan Heathcock, author of the lauded story collection Volt (Graywolf Press, 2011), in the online magazine MayDay.

Heathcock has published in numerous magazines and journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review, VQR, Five Chapters, Storyville, and The Harvard Review. His stories have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. VOLT was selected a “Best Book 2011”by GQ, Publishers Weekly, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, and included in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series. Currently, Heathcock teaches creative writing at Boise State University.

Speaking of humility, here’s Heathcock on the topic:

Humility is not the sublimation of ambition, but giving yourself to something bigger than yourself, of understanding that only with hard work and dedication can you ascend into your ambitions.

Writers of short stories will, I think, find Heathcock’s insights especially encouraging. In the marketplace the short story is often, and contrary to other contemporary sensibilities, the insufficient stepchild of literature—I’ve had more than one literary agent regretfully decline my work because I haven’t written a novel. Heathcock provides sustenance for those of us who stubbornly keep on:

I worked over a dozen years on a collection of stories, thought about how it would work as a collection, and tried hard to make it as potent a BOOK  [author’s emphasis] as possible. I thought long and hard on how to make it work as a BOOK.

In this regard, patience is crucial. Assembling a great book is far different from writing a great story.  Among writers of careful prose (and stunningly great collections), the virtue of patience is often cited as necessary—Andrea Barrett and Jhumpa Lahiri come to mind. Patience is as much a skill as close reading or writing better sentences. Here’s Heathcock on patience:

…I’ve published only six stories in sixteen years, all of which found homes in top tier journals, a few of which were recognized in anthologies and/or won awards…My book, which took me over a dozen years to finish, was the exact book I wanted to write—I stand by every word of every story.

Patience is, of course, an expression of time, and Heathcock’s willingness to give his work the time it needs, to endure the lonely and difficult work of making sure every word of every story is the right one, is a reminder of what the act of writing demands.

Humility, Bryan Camp wrote here at LitStack, is a skill the new writer cultivates. It requires a willingness to dismantle everything you think you know and in its place, build up something new that can carry you forward. Patience is a different skill. To be truly patient, we need to disengage from that whirling clock of internet, to forget that others are moving ahead of us, to stop worrying about the outward world and look inward, to the words on the page and the story at hand, where the necessary solutions aren’t found on the first, or second or even the third try.

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