This is my second post this year of quotes from Ron Rash. He’s one of my all-time favorite writers, and that he lives in the Southeast (and claims Western North Carolina as his region) makes me love his work that much more.
Find my story for Mountain Xpress about Rash’s sublime new novel, Above the Waterfall, here. And below, his words of wisdom to writers:
On his schedule:
I write everyday. Sometimes I’ll take Sundays off, but usually at least six days a week I’m at it.
On going to school for writing:
I have a straight master’s in literature. That’s what was best for me. I needed to be reading really good writers.
Ultimately, whether you go through an MFA program or straight MA, it’s what you do afterwords [that matters]. The only way you’re really going to get good is just not giving up, putting the hours in to learn your craft and going though the process where slowly but surely you improve. The other thing is that you continue to read. I don’t know a single good writer who’s not a voracious reader. That’s how you learn and that’s how you challenge yourself. You read the best.
I just read a book by a Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, called I Refuse. It’s one of those very quiet, beautiful books. He’s one of my favorite living writers.
Rash didn’t publish his first collection of short stories until 1994, when he was in his 40s; his first book of poetry followed two years later, and his first novel came out in 2002.
I’d written two novels and destroyed them because they weren’t good. Story after story, I’d write them and they’d be dead on the page. But I didn’t give up. Sometimes I wondered why I didn’t. But as I got into my 30s I started getting published in some small journals and then some slightly bigger journals.
But I really believe it’s the best thing that could have happened to me as far as my writing, because I was able to concentrate solely on the writing. There were no distraction because no one was interested. I just went slowly and surely about my craft. What interest in my craft has come has been very slowly building. Someone recently said, ‘You’ve really broken through.’ I said, ‘It only took 17 books.’ I’m not an overnight sensation.
Some writers hit their stride quicker than others. Some writers can write their great books in their 20s or 30s. I just wasn’t one of those. You’re not making McDonald’s hamburgers. You’re doing something, if you’re any good, that’s unique. I certainly don’t believe you’ve got to have it done in your 30s — that’s absurd. I do feel like what happens is a lot of people, when they hit their 30s, just give up. And maybe they shouldn’t.
The work itself is what matters. That’s where the focus needs to be, not on self-promotion. You hope — an I do believe this — that if the work is good enough, eventually somebody will notice.
It might take 15 or 20 years to really get it. I know that sounds daunting, but if it’s really important to you, you’re willing to do that. I kind of made a choice in my late 20s. It was a serious choice. I’d been dabbling in it, and I said, “Do I want to live my life wondering if I could have really committed to it, or do I want to risk spending hours and years” — which I did — “and maybe finding out at the end I didn’t have the talent.” I would rather have failed and at least known. There were years when I was in my 30s when I couldn’t get a book published. I had manuscripts and story collections and nobody was interested. But I kept writing.