I drove home early this morning from London where I had spent yesterday accompanying my mother to the hospital. She has only recently found out she has stage 4 lung cancer, but she is already losing weight and feeling exhausted from the treatment, and perhaps the cancer itself. I had meant to rush back and get straight into my writing, which I know I must do but seem unable to focus on, I ended up faffing in the kitchen in fear and avoidance, and then came across this lovely tweet.
I had to sit down for a minute, ambushed by the emotion I suddenly felt. If my persist necklace is a much-needed reminder for Laura to keep going – her tweet was a much needed reminder for why I chose to make a persist necklace in the first place, and of what that word meant to me – something I have all but lost sight of in the past weeks.
Reeling from the shock of my mother's illness, my writing has seemed to slip away from me completely. I have been able to keep up with the necklaces, which always feel like a fun and satisfying diversion, but my real work – the books I am supposed to be working on, finishing! – has felt like it is buried under the heavy weight of not knowing how much longer my Mum will be around, and fearing what may come next. Without an agent checking up on me, and with no competition deadlines to work to, it has often felt pointless, self-indulgent, hopeless.
I realise that this is because I’m feeling low, that in some ways I have probably already started the grieving process. I know the cure for this is to simply ignore the doubts and to continue to do a little bit each day. To simply put the hours in even if they feel hard. To stick at it. To keep going. I've known this, but Laura's tweet brought it home.
Whenever I think of the phrase ‘Keeping going’ I think of Seamus Heaney, and what he said about this at his commencement speech at the University of North Carolina in 1996. I had just finished writing my honours thesis on his work and it has always stuck with me that someone already so famous and revered still had to find a way to keep going. That success isn’t this thing that you achieve and then your life falls into place – even someone as famous as Seamus had to knuckle down and find his own way to restart almost from scratch again.
‘Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others,’ said Heaney.
'The basis of self-esteem', 'the guarantee of credibility to yourselves as well as to others'. Reading that again now, has moved me deeply. This idea of persistence is tied up with being true to ourselves. We must persist to feel good about ourselves, and to earn the respect we want others to show us. This feeling of success we are all chasing isn’t necessarily going to come because of a flash of genius or a stroke of luck, or it may, but even if it does we will have to keep going afterwards. There are so many incredibly successful writers who found it even harder to write the second or third book. No matter what happens, success or silence – we need to persist, against the odds, against the urges to crawl back into bed or sit scrolling on our phones.
The word persist took on its feminist connotations last year when Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read out a letter on the Senate floor to state her opposition to Jeff Sessions nomination for Attorney General.
was written by Coretta Scott King (Martin Luther King’s wife) in 1986 and it laid out her reasons for opposing Sessions becoming a Federal District Court Judge. It stated that Sessions had used his powers to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters and shown indifference towards criminal violations of civil rights laws. Because of it and other testimony, Jeff Sessions was denied a federal judgeship in 1986. Surely this was relevant to his nomination now for Attorney General.
But Mitch McConnell accused Warren of violating Rule XIX that forbids one senator from demeaning another and he invoked a law which forced her to eventually stop speaking. He later said. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
This statement that, of course, went viral rang true with so many women. Here was a man silencing a woman summed up in a comment full of condescension. He seemed amazed, and slightly disgusted that she would have the gall to continue reading when told to be silent. How dare she be so stubborn as to keep speaking after ‘she was warned.’
But thanks to McConnell there is a new fire in the word persist, now reclaimed by women. This one word speaks of an inner strength and a commitment to a truth that we must honour. We must keep getting up and getting on with our work, with the fight at hand, whether it is our own writing, or other creative endeavors, or working to ensure a better future – calling out the racists and the bullies. It doesn’t really matter what the work at hand is, because the work of persistence is always the same: getting up and getting on and keeping going.
As Heaney said to those graduates, ‘because unless that underground level of the self is preserved as a verified and verifying element in your make-up, you are going to be in danger of settling into whatever profile the world prepares for you and accepting whatever profile the world provides for you. You'll be in danger of molding yourselves in accordance with laws of growth other than those of your own intuitive being.’
So thanks Laura for your kind tweet which I needed to read. I will put on a persist necklace today and I will wear one to my mother's next appointment (sunflower yellow I think) to remind me to keep holding on to the ideas encapsulated in this little word. Much love to you and to all my persister sisters.