Strategies for not giving up
How stories inspire me—and can inspire you—to keep going
Each week in Story Cauldron I discuss something about stories and storytelling and how Story is an important part of our lives. In this week’s newsletter, I talk about how stories have inspired me and kept me going when I needed a boost.
Are you ever tempted to walk away from a challenging situation?
When things get difficult or don’t go the way we hoped, a common response is to give up and walk away. It’s the path of least resistance, after all. If things were already difficult, why would we want to make things even harder for ourselves by sticking it out?
Of course, we all know that no one gets anywhere if they give up all the time. We would never learn how to ride a bike or how to swim. Guitarists and fiddle players wouldn’t entertain us with glorious music, and no one would ever run for office or write a book or invent anything.
Yet our lives are filled with abandoned projects and incomplete challenges. We give up all the time, whether we want to admit it or not.
Motivated by a tv show
When I started this week’s newsletter, I wanted to talk about John-Boy Walton, but I wasn’t sure why.
As Boomers and Gen X folks likely know, John-Boy was the lead character on the 1970s American TV show The Waltons.
John-Boy starts out as a 17-year-old boy, the eldest of seven children living in 1930s Appalachia. The show followed the family and members of the local community through post-Depression American and later, through World War II and beyond. The show was based loosely on Earl Hamner Jr.’s 1961 book Spencer’s Mountain that was in turn based loosely on the author’s real life (in the show, Hamner Jr. was the voice of the narrator).
I was always intrigued that John-Boy was a writer. From the earliest episodes, he was working on a novel. While his siblings were playing outside, he was often up in his room or wandering about and daydreaming. Writing was the most important thing to him and he always made time for it.
And as I started working on this piece, I realized that this fictional tale of a writer’s journey had become a part of me in ways I hadn’t even considered before now.
An important lesson
Recently I’ve been part of a number of conversations about giving up. A writer friend didn’t move on in a contest and asked, “what’s the point?” and a number of authors have expressed disappointment in the new Kindle Vella serial fiction platform.
And for some reason, I thought back to John-Boy. But it wasn’t the fact that he was a writer.
Something I always remembered about the show—something that really stuck with me all these years—happened in the fourth season. In the episode “The Burnout” there’s an accident at the house, and the Walton house catches on fire.
John-Boy rushes inside to rescue his novel but saves his sister Erin instead. As a result, his novel, something he had devoted every spare moment to writing, literally goes up in smoke (because, of course, back in the 1930s they didn’t have cloud backups or even xerox machines).
This was a tragic moment for any writer watching the show, but what matters is what happened next: after some initial grief and resistance, John-Boy didn’t give up. He eventually rewrote his novel and published it.
Throughout the show, John-Boy modeled what being a writer was all about. John-Boy focused on his goals. Although he had a well-rounded life, he made time and showed up for his writing. He entered contests and submitted work for publication. He failed and succeeded.
Most of all, John-Boy never gave up.
Overcoming frustration and failure
It's hard to keep going sometimes when you think things aren’t working, or when tragedy strikes or an experiment fails.
You tell yourself stories about why it didn’t work, and often it becomes personal, even when the lack of progress, or of success, has nothing to do with you. What’s wrong with me, you might ask, or you might imagine yourself as someone with snakes for arms who can only speak in rhymes. Something completely other than yourself.
When thinking about this article, I discovered something deliciously ironic. According to Wikipedia, while John-Boy didn’t give up on his novel, CBS (the network that broadcast the show) initially didn’t have much faith in the show and almost gave up on it before it ever had a chance.
The network gave The Waltons an undesirable timeslot – Thursdays at 8 p.m – opposite 2 popular programs… "The rumor was that they put it against Flip Wilson and The Mod Squad because they didn't think it would survive. They thought, 'We can just tell Congress America doesn't want to see this'," Kami Cotler, who played Elizabeth Walton, said in a 2012 interview.
Furthermore, Ralph Waite, the actor who played John Walton, John-Boy’s father, didn’t want to be on a long-running series and didn’t want to audition for the role. He was convinced to do so by his agent, who told him, "It will never sell. You do the pilot. You pick up a couple of bucks and then you go back to New York."
CBS and the actors gave up on the show before it even aired! But fortunately it caught on quickly, and CBS ultimately ran a newspaper ad with positive reviews, and it was this ad that saved The Waltons.
What if CBS had given up on it at the start? The Waltons wouldn’t have lasted nine seasons or win 10 Primetime Emmys and many other awards. It wouldn’t have been a huge hit. And John-Boy Walton would have never inspired me to be a writer.
A shot in the arm
Now, it’s not only John-Boy Walton that motivates me. One of the beauties of fiction is that we encounter all kinds of characters that inspire us. I just rewatched the show Turn: Washington’s Spies on Netflix. The heroism of the Culper Ring reminds me that important things are difficult, and difficult things can be important. And nearly every book I pick up features a protagonist overcoming insurmountable odds to achieve their goals and their deepest desires.
So when you get frustrated or discouraged, I’d recommend that you take a cue from all of the millions of stories out there that can carve a path for you to get back up and try again.
And if you need a booster shot, try my personal secret weapon.
Whenever I get discouraged and want to quit, I watch this video from Kid President, and it turns things around. Seriously—I went through a very dark period a few years ago when I didn’t think I could ever finish a novel or achieve any real success, and this kid, Robby Novak, kept me moving forward. He’s just a kid, as he reminds us, but he understands.
Here’s his pep talk, in songified form:
(Here’s the original, non-musical version if you prefer; you can also find the song on iTunes and Spotify if it inspires you to keep going.)
I hope this helps you keep going and helps you do something awesome.
Above I included the line “someone with snakes for arms who can only speak in rhymes.” Did you notice it? A number of writers on Substack accepted the challenge to find a way to work this bit into this week’s newsletter.
In addition to sharing articles like these as part of Story Cauldron, I’m also writing serial fiction called The Favor Faeries, a young adult fantasy about teenagers who turn to faeries to solve their problems. You can follow the story on the new serial fiction platform Kindle Vella or subscribe to my paid newsletter here to read The Favor Faeries whenever the fancy strikes you. New chapters drop every Friday.
And if you love science fiction and fantasy, I’m taking part in a special Kindle Vella promotion through August 2021. Check out a number of other stories by Kindle Vella authors.