Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The relentlessly resourceful writer

with one comment

Recently, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the parallels between writing and entrepreneurship. At first glance, of course, the comparison seems ridiculous: the personality types drawn by these two professions couldn’t be more dissimilar—at the very least, they attract two different kinds of nerds—and it’s not as if we see a lot of productive crossover between the two fields. But hear me out. Being a novelist and founding a startup are things that many people dream of doing, but few make the leap to seeing through. Both start with inspiration and end with the painstaking work of solving tedious problems on a daily basis. Both careers probably seem more glamorous than they actually are. For every success story, there are hundreds of unseen failures—and a few highly visible ones. And in both fields, the single greatest predictor of success, as far as I can tell, is whether one has quit one’s day job.

I’ve also become convinced that the most capable practitioners in both professions can be described with the same phrase: relentlessly resourceful. The term comes from an essay by the venture capitalist Paul Graham, who coined it as a two-word description of what makes a good entrepreneur. A startup founder, he explains, needs to be the opposite of hapless, capable of dealing with surprising difficulties on the fly—and not just once, but over and over again, and with a willingness to try new things when the old solutions don’t seem to work. This is basically what a novelist does, too. Interestingly, though, Graham explicitly states that he doesn’t feel that this is a recipe for success in the arts: “Resourceful implies the obstacles are external, which they generally are in startups,” he says. “But in writing and painting they’re mostly internal; the obstacle is your own obtuseness.”

I can’t argue with that last point. All the same, the more I write, the more I think relentless resourcefulness is exactly what a writer needs, and that the obstacles involved are, in fact, as much external as internal. This isn’t necessarily the case early in a writing project, when you’re looking at the world, and within yourself, in search of material: at that stage, the necessary quality is, as Graham notes, to be “actively curious.” But once you’ve committed to a project, and are up to your knees in a specific narrative, the problems you’re solving start to feel very external indeed: how to introduce backstory, how to sequence a series of scenes, how to create and sustain momentum, even how to get characters into—or out of—a room. And while the ultimate goal is to create something both personal and of universal interest, the only way to get there is by being crafty, tactical, and resourceful.

This applies to literary fiction as much as to genre work. When I think of writers for whom the phrase “relentlessly resourceful” feels appropriate, the first to come to mind is John Updike, who, at his best, seemed capable of almost anything. Indeed, with Updike, there’s often the sense that his resourcefulness has become an end in itself, rather than the means, as he shows off his versatility across a wide range of characters and subjects. You can see the same kind of showy resourcefulness in someone like Amis, Franzen, or David Mitchell. In general, though, we should revel in our resourcefulness in private, while never revealing it to our readers. If an entrepreneur’s goal is to make something that people want, without ever noticing the effort that went into its creation, the goal of the novelist, however ingenious, should be to create an organic, inevitable piece of story that seems like it wrote itself. But in both cases, as Graham notes, being relentlessly resourceful is the only way to get there.

Written by nevalalee

December 14, 2011 at 9:36 am

One Response

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  1. Great post thanks. I really enjoyed it very much.

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    December 14, 2011 at 12:33 pm


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