Esmé Wang: On Choosing Not to Quit

Esmé Weijun Wang had been working on her first novel for many years. She’d written several hundred pages.

And then she read “The Sound and the Fury” by Faulkner.

Esmé had already read a lot of really good writing. She’d studied at the University of Michigan, Yale, and Stanford. She knew good writing.

But Faulkner was different.

Faulkner changed her.

After reading “The Sound and the Fury” she took her several hundred-page novel that she’d worked on for many years, and she threw it away.

The whole thing.

In Esmé’s words:

“Nothing got saved from that novel. I’m never going to publish it. Not a single sentence from that work is going to appear in anything else I publish because I don’t believe in it. It’s not a work I’m proud of.”

Faulkner showed her something new: possibility, potential.

And in that moment Esmé chose bigger. “I realized I wanted to be more ambitious with my writing.”

We all have those moments. Most of us have many of them, sometimes several times a day. Staring into the face of brilliance we have to decide if we give up or grow up.

Esmé decided to grow up.

She says,

“In some ways you could say, ‘Wow, what a waste of all those years and all that time you spent writing those hundreds of pages…
But I can also say that writing that novel taught me a lot about writing: in the doing. And I carry that with me.”

Cheryl Strayed puts it this way:

“I realized if I truly wanted to write the story I had to tell, I would have to gather everything within me to make it happen. I would have to sit and think of only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I mean work.”

And Esmé did. She wrote essays. She wrote blog posts. And she wrote her debut novel. Her work has appeared in the Believer, The New Inquiry, Hazlitt, and Salon. She won the prestigious 2016 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and her novel, “The Border of Paradise,” was named one of NPR’s best books of 2016.

In the face of genius, beauty, and brilliance, Esmé chose freedom. Freedom to stretch, expand and become every more. To not be enslaved by greatness but encouraged by it.

That’s it. Do we make art or do make excuses? Do we give up or grow up?

You don’t have the desire inside of you to create for nothing. It’s not there to show you you’re not good enough. It’s there to spur you on to do your work. To be the creator that you are. To make art.

As the great painter Andy Warhol says,

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”

Click here for more on my interview with Esmé Weijun Wang, How to be a Creative Warrior.

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