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Pep Talk from Matthew Salesses

photo of Matthew Salesses

Dear writers, 

What a hard thing it is to write a novel, and to write so much of it in one month! Let no one ever say you’re not one for commitment. Now, you’re in the thick of it, and hopefully it feels amazing, and hopefully it does also feel hard. I didn’t know what to write for this pep talk, but I thought about how parenting books tell you to start talking to your children by validating their feelings. It is sad (and annoying!) that it is so difficult as an adult to find such validation. Maybe that is one of the reasons we turn to books. 

My kids’ feelings are big and wild and they remind me that my feelings are big and wild but that I can rarely let myself have those big, wild feelings—except on the page. Where else can we meet our innermost thoughts and fears and desires but in stories? In reading them and also in telling them. And how wonderful that meeting is—and how hard—how hard to really sit with and honor those feelings when so much of life says, “this is not the place for that.” 

Here, on the page—this is the place. This is the place for your big and wild feelings, your hopes and dreams, your endurance and exhaustion, your struggle, your self-expression. 

And telling your story should be hard! It should be hard. If it isn’t now, it will be later. There will come a point where it is difficult to go on—to go on drafting, to go on revising, to go on revising, to go on revising. And that is how you know you are doing the thing worth doing, because it is worth the difficulty. When you hit that point, I want you to be proud of yourself; when you feel like giving up, I want you to have confidence that you are doing something worth continuing. 

I tell my students that the process of writing, like the process of living, is a valley. You begin with a beautiful idea—when it lives only in your imagination, it is a beautiful thing—and then you begin to write, and somewhere along the way, whether in the writing or in the revising, you realize that you cannot make the thing as beautiful as the idea. Then you are in the valley. This is the place where many writers stop writing, stop revising, where many people stop growing, stop trying to be better people—not because they know they are in descent, but because they are afraid of descending still further. They cut their losses. When you cut your losses, you can make yourself believe that you are not falling but standing before the fall, because ahead of you is the abyss of the unknown. 

Go on. You are doing the hard thing. Only by going into the valley can you climb out of it—not back to the heights from which you came, not back to that beautiful idea, but to a new place, the beautiful place where your idea becomes new, because it becomes reality. If you don’t do the hard thing of descending, you will never reach it. You will never even know that it is there. 

You are doing the hard thing. 

Write on,


(Need another boost? View our entire pep talk archive.)

Matthew Salesses is the author of four novels, the most recent of which will be published in January 2023—The Sense of Wonder, about the first Asian American basketball star—and one book about writing fiction, Craft in the Real World. He was adopted from Korea and lives in New York City, where he teaches fiction writing at Columbia University.

Author photo by Grace Salesses

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