I was reading Wall Street Journal Drama Critic Terry Teachout’s blog* this morning and came across this interesting quote from the late conductor/ composer Leonard Bernstein:

“I’m extremely humble about whatever gifts I may have, but I am not modest about the work I do. I work extremely hard and all the time.”

Terry goes on to say:

“That’s how I feel about myself. Having met a few geniuses, I know quite well that I’m not one: I’m bright enough, and I’ve been blessed with a retentive memory, but that’s as far as it goes. What I do have in hyper abundance is what the Germans, who’ve coined an ugly-sounding word for just about everything, call Sitzfleisch, by which they mean the ability to sit at your desk for long stretches of time.

“Anthony Trollope is supposed to have said that the three pieces of equipment needed by a writer are ‘pen and ink and a piece of sealing wax.’ Asked what the sealing wax was for, he replied, ‘To put on the chair, my dear, to keep you at your work.’ Whether or not this quote is apocryphal–and I have yet to find a primary source for it–I live by it. While I wouldn’t exactly say that genius is overrated, I do think that it’s not much more than the enabling condition for a certain kind of achievement. Without Sitzfleisch, it’s wasted.”

Yikes. Guilty as charged.

I admit that I rarely have the Sitzfleisch necessary to do the work I want to. Instead, I tend to write during snatches of time that happen to coincide with the times I feel “inspired.”

Folks, this is the wrong way to forge a writing career. Fortunately, I have an excuse. After editing the writing of other authors for 5-7 hours a day, I just don’t have the juice to work on my own writing when I get home at night. But also, I don’t have a deadline at present. Deadlines come with contracts. And contracts motivate me like little else. Show me an editor waiting to see my finished product and who is willing to sign on the dotted line and all of a sudden I’m Mr. Sitzfleisch himself. So while I’m waiting for that next contract, I spend most of my writing time working on proposals and sample chapters, not on a book-length manuscript.

The late Belgian mystery author Georges Simenon was quite prolific (he wrote more than 200 novels). But he had a strategy that allowed him to be so productive. When he was finally ready to write, he would have his doctor check him over and verify that he was up to what would follow, and then he would immerse himself in the writing, hopefully finishing within eleven days. He said he couldn’t handle the strain of being in the characters’ skin for more than eleven days. And if he came down sick during the writing and had to miss 48 hours of writing, he would throw the work-in-progress away, never to return to it. And he’d start fresh on a new novel.

Other writers also testify to the need to getting the whole thing down at once. Which, of course, requires a great amount of Sitzfleisch.

How is it with you? Are you able to sit at your computer for hours on end in order to complete your project…even without a contract? If not, how long is your limit before reaching the breaking point?

If, like Leonard Bernstein and Terry Teachout, you have enough Sitzfleisch you’re way ahead of other writers in your pursuit of success.

So now that you’ve read this, go back to your WIP and apply some Sitzfleisch.

* I couldn’t get the link to work above. Here is Terry’s blog site:

6 replies
  1. sally apokedak
    sally apokedak says:

    Hmm. Not much Sitzfleisch here.

    Well, that’s not true. I sit in my chair all day. I just don’t work on my novel. I’m all over the internet, reading blog posts, instead. I have good excuses, but so does everyone else. People who succeed don’t excuse themselves from their work even if they have a right to do so.

    When life gets busy, though, I don’t work on the novel, because I don’t work well in snatches. I’d much rather sit in my chair working all day. I like to do the Book in a Week,/a>. It works quite well for me. I can’t do half a novel in that time, but a quarter of a rough draft, is doable.

    I agree that deadlines make me work. They don’t even have to be paying deadlines. If I’ve promised someone I’ll have an article in for a church newsletter or a guest blog post, I get it done.

  2. Rick Barry
    Rick Barry says:

    I guessed the meaning from my one year of high school German, but it’s an interesting new description for good ol’ stick-to-it-iveness (tenacity). This trait seems to be one of the differences between folks who actually sit down and write manuscripts (published or not), and those multitudes who claim that someday they will write a book.

    Thanks for this!

  3. Richard Mabry
    Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, great post. I can’t remember who said it or the exact words, but I’ve heard that there are only two requirements to become a published author: only write when you feel like it, and feel like it every day.
    And Rick’s exactly right about the meaning of “sitzfleisch”–literally, “sitting flesh.” In other words, apply that part of anatomy firmly to the chair and get to writing.

  4. Kathy Nickerson
    Kathy Nickerson says:

    I understand what you mean about lacking juice at the end of the workday. One year, I forced myself to sit down for twenty-minutes every morning and write before I left for the office. I completed an entire novel that way.

  5. Shannon Brophy
    Shannon Brophy says:

    Excellent post. I told myself years ago that I would write a publishable book by the time I turned 30, so at the end of last year during our family vision planning session, I decided that in 2012, with a year to spare before the big 3-0, I would make it happen. Now I have a fun word to cheer myself on with! 🙂


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