Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sticking to It

“Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t do.”

I often share these words from Thomas Alva Edison when I visit schools to talk with kids about researching and writing nonfiction. I started doing this about a year ago, when I was asked to do a presentation on my biography of Edison, Inventing the Future. As I reread the book to prepare my talk, I was struck anew by the inventor’s persistence, his doggedness, his stick-to-it-iveness-—the same qualities we need to be good writers.

As I tell students, I usually have to try lots of approaches that don’t work before I find the one that does, try lots of words that aren’t quite right before I find the ones that are. (And by the way, I test-drove and rejected about 5 other topics for this blog before deciding this one worked for me today.)

It would be nice to have sudden strokes of brilliance, but for most of us good writing comes down to working hard. As Tom Edison liked to say, “Sticking to it is the genius.” This attitude helped him earn 1,093 patents for his inventions (a record that stood until 2003, the year after Inventing the Future was published). In his quest to invent a practical long-burning light bulb, he sketched hundreds of different designs and tested more than 1,600 different materials, including the hair from his assistant’s beard.

“Every wrong attempt discarded,” Edison said, “is another step forward.” Yet another maxim for writers to keep in mind as we embark on yet another draft.


Vicki Cobb said...

Marfe, you might be interested that last week, at the checkout counter in the supermarket, among the tabloids headlining the various romantic failings of people I never heard of, was a Time Magazine special edition--a glossy, perfect bound: Thomas Edison: His Electrifying Life. I couldn't resist buying it, even though it was $13.99! As I started reading it I couldn't help thinking that this was a perfect children's nf work but it was being sold in a supermarket. What's that all about? And at such a high price for something that looked like a magazine! (To its credit, there was no advertising in the book.)

The writing was good but disjointed. Clearly, one person didn't do the whole thing. (It was written and edited by the same person, who was listed in small type on the inside masthead.) There were chapters that were obviously re-purposed previously published articles. As a result there was some repetition and no overall, coherent theme.

I asked my editor about the price and her comment was that since it was aimed at adults, they could charge more than she could although she produces a superior product. Now, I can't wait to read your book.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Vicki, I haven't seen this but I'm going to look for it next time I'm at the market. It's interesting to me that it's from Time--sounds very familiar to the series style books that I worked on as a staff writer for Time-Life Books back in the 1990s. Back then all the books had several contributors.

bhawan kumar said...
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