Ars Longa by Elizabeth Mitchell

That lyf so short,

the craft so long to learne,

Th’ assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge.

The Parliament of Fowls 1. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400).

Chaucer is paraphrasing Hippocrates, taken most likely from Seneca’s Latin rendering, “Ars longa, vita brevis,” in De Brevitate Vitae sect. 1. (Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles. 5th edition, Oxford University Press, 2001).

One misunderstanding I hear many people voice is if one can get enough words on the page, one can write a novel.  Often those same people point to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants as a NaNo novel, as if it sprang in galley proof off her computer screen on November 30th.  I do not know Sara Gruen, but I do not believe she e-mailed the draft to an agent on December 1st. However, I continue to meet far too many people who think their first draft is their last draft, although humans have known since the time of Hippocrates (circa 460-357 BCE) that art is difficult to master. Our own Beth Camp wrote this wonderfulpost about her multiple drafts this past winter, and Julie Rowe has this post on the focuses of the seven to eight separate drafts in her revision process. Yes, that is not a typo: seven to eight drafts. Therefore, I hate to disappoint, but writing 50,000 words in a month, or even a year, does not mean one has a ready-to-publish novel at the end of composition.

So, am I counseling giving up?  Not at all. I do counsel being realistic, in that any piece of writing will take learning, rewriting, more learning, more rewriting, in what will come to feel like an endless cycle worthy of one of Dante’s circles.

My other piece of advice comes from another clause of the quotation: “That lyf so short.” Start now. Life is short, and each year picks up velocity for me in some manner explicable only by science fiction. I have also had far too many object lessons on the fragility of life in the past two years. There is hard work to do, and eternity stretches before no one on earth.  My advice? Believe me, I am giving myself this advice as much as I am you, gentle reader. If you have a story to tell, start telling it, even if badly, even while learning to make it better, because time waits for no man, woman, or child.


Elizabeth Mitchell

9 thoughts on “Ars Longa by Elizabeth Mitchell

  1. I feel that– “Life is short, and each year picks up velocity for me in some manner explicable only by science fiction.” Oh my goodness, yes! There was an exercise program I used to watch (and exercise to) the “host” would always say, this next 30 minutes will pass by whether you’re on the couch or exercising…so, you may as well exercise.

    I think about that with writing, days go by, life goes by no matter what you’re doing–a year from now, you’ll either not have written, or you will have! Thanks Elizabeth!

    1. Amy, you and Elizabeth say it perfectly: There is no better time to start writing that story now.. because yesterday is gone, and you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

    2. Like Eden, I love that statement from the exercise show host! It is so foundationally true. I have to remind myself to make time for writing–if it matters to me, it is worth the investment.

      I’m glad you can relate to the velocity of the years, Amy. I don’t feel so alone!

  2. Very good thoughts, Elizabeth. One thing I do want to say is that the more you hone your craft, the fewer drafts you usually have to do in later books. But like you said, you have to LEARN. And the only way to do that is practice. When I think of giving up, I realize if I do, I’ll never get the chance to know what might have been. And that’s part of the excitement of the whole thing…discovering what’s next, what could happen. 🙂 Life is most definitely short.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement that it does get easier as one writes more. Lauralynn. I am hoping the learning curve flattens out at some point!

      Please don’t give up! You still have stories to tell.

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