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On Aspects of Grit

Feb 14, 2022

By Christine Carron

slog: to plod (one's way) perseveringly, especially against difficulty
agog: ​​full of intense interest or excitement; full of wonder or surprise
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From the age of ten to fourteen, I was a member of the Saint Louis Civic Ballet. It was a seminal experience of my childhood, and I’ve referenced it previously on this blog. Yet when I first auditioned, I wasn’t chosen. My two friends and my sister were. Indeed, I was the only one who auditioned from my local studio who didn’t make it that day. 

Devastation. 

Followed shortly by determination. 

The maestro of the ballet offered a technique class that was open to the public at noon each Saturday, directly before the ballet company’s three-hour rehearsal. I told my mom I wanted to take that class. But lest you think this was me just losing an hour of a Saturday afternoon, let me paint the full picture.  

The studio where the ballet rehearsed was forty minutes from the town where I grew up. Add on carpool pick-ups from house to house and the time commitment to get to and from class was at least two hours. The parent-driver of the day (usually one of the moms) who drove us would drop us off and then go do whatever a parent with four hours of free time does. 

All of the above meant that every Saturday my ten-year-old self would lose almost the entire day to take a one-hour ballet class. Part of the lost time was, of course, on the road. But the more tender part of the lost time was me sitting alone in the dressing room with a book, or in the waiting room with a book, but always in earshot of the music and the rehearsing and the ever-present awareness that I was the one who had not been chosen. 

Despite that latter truth, my overall memories of those times spent waiting was a sense of luckiness. And excitement. Even a happy ease with the whole experience. I may not have been in the ballet but I was still getting to learn from the maestro. 

I think my ten-year-old self inherently recognized that I was becoming a better dancer through my commitment. Which made all that waiting worth it. (Yes, I was quite the passionate little thing.)

On it went. Saturday after Saturday. 

And then one Saturday, the maestro of the ballet, called me up after class and said, “Stay for rehearsal.”

And there it was. One of the most magical moments of my life. I was in the ballet! By special invitation to boot!

Getting into Grit

In 2020, the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) Summer Conference went online. Philip Pullman was one of the guest speakers. As part of his interview with Arthur Levine he said that it takes three things to achieve success as a writer:

  1. Persistence
  2. Talent
  3. Luck

Then Pullman added that you, as the writer, can only control the first one.

I double-checked the definition of persistence after that interview. Persistence: firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.

Interestingly, Angela Duckworth, the author of the best-selling book Grit, has almost the exact same perspective in how she defines grit (which is absolutely in synonym territory of persistence):  

Grit is passion and perseverance for long-term goals.

One way to think about grit is to consider what grit isn’t.

Grit isn’t talent. Grit isn’t luck. Grit isn’t how intensely, for the moment, you want something.

Instead, grit is about having what some researchers call an “ultimate concern”–a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when you screw up. Even when progress toward that goal is halting or slow.

Talent and luck matter to success. But talent and luck are no guarantee of grit. And in the very long run, I think grit may matter [at least] . . . as much, if not more.

What I am getting from these two perspectives for us folk who have the ultimate concern of having (some level or the other of) outward success with our writing is that talent and luck are useful, but along with learning how to plot, build character, create a scene and the like, it would also serve us to get a little gritty about being gritty. 

If you have been on the writing adventure at least through one rejection or one scathing to semi-scathing critique, then you are likely nodding your head in agreement. Heck yes! Writers do need to be gritty about getting gritty. 

So, check, we need grit. But lately I’ve been wondering if, in the decades between my gritty ten-year-old self and gritty me present day, my views about the nature of grit got a little warped. 

Dismissing a Key Data Point

Looking back at that whole getting-into-the-ballet arc, sure, I knew perseverance and such was involved. I even identified that experience as one of me being gritty in an application for a grant once. But the truth is a part of me also kind of dismissed the joyful undertones of that particular grit experience as nothing more than youthful exuberance. 

Wasn’t real grit supposed to include more struggling, more striving . . . more suffering? I mean, look at the words at play in those previous definitions of grit and persistence: obstinance, difficulty, opposition, halting. Not exactly warm or fuzzy. Which tracks with a lot of my adult grit-inducing experiences. For example, a few years ago, one of those tough turns on the writing adventure required a gritty recalibration process that took three years for goodness sake. 

But if my ten-year-old self’s joyful grit experience was a fluke, and grit really is always a tough, hard slog, then how do I explain what happened during a writerly grit-testing experience from just a few weeks ago? When I heard from my agent that the revision I wrestled with for over a year had not landed, which meant that novel would not go out to publishers again any time soon. 

The blow was intense, yet within twenty four hours I was back on track with passion and determination and with a new game plan that will help me grow as a writer. I’ve been riding high with invigorated determination ever since. 

Which is almost an exact experiential match to my memory of getting into the ballet. And that means (holy hoses, reader!) for years, I made Grit a flat character in the story of my writerly adventure. 

Ms. Slog and Ms. Agog

In his Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster presented the idea of flat and round characters:

Flat characters . . . are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures. In their purest form, they are constructed around a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round. (p. 67)

In my dismissal of my ten-year-old self’s joyful grit experience of getting into the ballet, I took away one of Grit’s factors. Flattening her. Reducing her to a flat caricature: Ms. Slog Grit. 

It’s important to note before continuing that Forster didn’t say that flat characters are all bad. Two benefits he calls out: they are recognizable and easily remembered. I definitely recognize Ms. Slog, she is tough and no-nonsense, and I also definitely remember the times that she was the reason I kept slugging through writerly challenges. So, no way am I sending Ms. Slog packing.

But what is a bit of a pity is that it took me so long to realize that Ms. Agog Grit was a real possibility, too. That Ms. Agog has both Ms. Slog Grit’s staying power and the power to wave her magic wand. A wand that makes disappointment and devastation transform to joy and excitement with supersonic speed. Ms. Agog has more than one factor. She is round. And she is real.

Never again will I dismiss her as a fluke. Which is . . . 

The Most Important Thing

It’s a Patience post this week. Which is perfect, since often the Sisters Grit (both Ms. Slog and Ms. Agog) require time and our patience for them to do their thing. Ms. Slog stuck it out with me for three years post-destabilizing critique. And while Ms. Agog might have rocketed me past the worst of the disappointment with the failed revision, there is still the long path ahead to write new books. I trust that neither Ms. Slog and Ms. Agog will abandon me as I tackle those. 

Patience also feels spot on, since it took me decades to get back to a truth about Grit that I learned when I was ten. Which is a tad bit ironic since ballet, the context in which I first met Ms. Agog, is both hard and glorious. So why not grit?

Clearly Ms. Agog was waiting patiently for me to remember what I already knew, and also waiting for the perfect moment to swoop back in and wow me again with her existence. Mission accomplished, Ms. Agog. Never again will I dismiss, diminish or deny your existence. No way. No how.

From here on out on the writerly adventure I’ll be hanging with both the Grit Sisters, thank you very much. How about you?

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 Sources:

  • Philip Pullman’s "Keys to Writerly Success" from personal Notes, Arthur Levine interview with Philip Pullman, SCBWI 2020 Summer Conference.
  • Source Angela Duckworth definition of Grit.  Source: Angela Duckworth website, FAQ page (copied Jan 31, 2022): https://angeladuckworth.com/qa/ 
  • E. M. Forster, Aspects of A Novel, Harcourt, Inc., 1927.

The Goodjelly Prompts of the Week

  • Post-in-Action: Explore Angela Duckworth’s work to learn more about grit. If you are feeling adventurous, complete her Grit Scale to get one perspective on your grittiness score. 
  • Scene Prompt: Write a scene where your character had to get gritty. Writer’s choice to decide if you want to use Slog Grit style or Agog grit style in the scene.
  • Journaling Prompt: List some of your grittiest moments/arcs on the writing adventure. In those times, did you experienced both varieties of Grit? Ms. Slog and Ms. Agog? If so, what was the experiential difference of each? If not, how might you open yourself up to experience more grit variety (roundness) in your writing adventure? 
  • Connection Prompt: Connect with your writerly peeps and discuss the ideas in this post. Such as grit on the writerly adventure, Pullman’s writerly success factors, Slog Grit versus Agog Grit, etc.
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