Dumb luck

by Pari

You wouldn’t think it when you sit in the bar with us, but we writers are an optimistic lot. Staring sternly into our flat beers and swirling the last remnants of our scotch in ice that melted too quickly, we bitch ‘n’ moan ad nauseum.

But even the grouchiest, most disillusioned, complaining-est scribe holds a secret hope that his or her work will hit the BIG TIME, earn out an obscenely large advance lickety split, be optioned for a blockbuster movie and climb the NYT bestseller list purely based on pre-orders.

In short, writers are suckers for the idea of luck.

Lately, I’ve been trying to dissect what we mean by luck. I figure, if I can understand it, I might be able to manufacture a little of my own. Ya know?

I think the unexamined assumption we make, the latent definition, goes something like this: Luck is the confluence of unexpected and fortunate elements over which we don’t have control, but which finds us and bestows wonderful gifts.

Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered. attr. William Shakespeare

Well, maybe . . .

But that sounds like a cop out, doesn’t it? And it can lead to the following idea pretty easily.

I believe in luck: How else can you explain the success of those you don’t like? attr. Jean Cocteau

I know I’ve felt that way. An acquaintance of mine (and not a very nice person) and I sold our first books at about the same time. Hers went to auction and landed at St. Martin’s for nearly $500,000. Mine went to UNM Press for, um,  . . . not quite that much. In the intervening time from purchase to publication, I watched this woman on the Today Show and saw her work hit the national bestseller lists. And I found myself explaining her success in terms of "timing," "riding a wave," and her ethnicity.

Here’s a slightly different twist:
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.  attr. Seneca

In some ways, my attributions about this writer’s success were right on. For example, she did cash in on her ethnicity  . . . very well, in fact. In truth, she was a shining example of someone who decided to study and craft her work, to CREATE the wave she then caught. She did it deliberately, with tremendous aforethought and skill, and she ended up with a great result.

Oh, and here’s another truth I had to look in the eye . . . she’s a damn fine writer too. 

It’s not nice to think of myself as petty, but I was. After the fact, to make myself look good, I tried to put her down (never by name or in public, at least I had that much sense) with the rationale that her success was because of luck.

What a stupid move. It set me back emotionally far too long. (Here’s my post on jealousy, btw.)

[How many of you reading this blog today are silently holding on to equally unpleasant and self-paralyzing thoughts? You don’t have to admit it to me — or in the comments section — but please make sure to admit it to yourself.]

After thinking about the subject for a few weeks, I’m approaching the whole concept of luck differently.
I look at the quote attributed to Shakespeare at the beginning of this post and say, "Hey, Will, that may be true, but someone must’ve put those boats out to sea in the first place."

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.  attr. Thomas Jefferson

Yeah, that sums it up. The writer who goes to a conference and meets the editor who changes her life did something to further her career. The novelist who takes Alex Sokoloff’s posts about screenwriting to heart and applies some of the principles to his own work — thereby creating a book that works like a dream AND lends itself to a blockbuster movie — took action.

That’s where I’m at now.

I like it better than waiting for my ship to come in.

Go and wake up your luck.  attr. Persian proverb. 
Yeah, I can live with that.

How about you? 

16 thoughts on “Dumb luck

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    Oh, lord, have I been there, especially (and it pains me to admit it) the jealousy part. Oh, it’s been a fleeting thought, and I call on the better angels of my nature to come in and stomp it to death with hobnailed boots, but it’s definitely there.

    But all you can do is put your shoulder to the wheel and get to work. One of the song lines I live by is from U2: I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.

  2. Wilfred Bereswill

    Seems like the TJ quote on luck is similar to one I heard from a golfer. There seems to be confusion about where it came from, but Arnie, or Gary or Ben or Lee holed one from a bunker. As the ball trickled in, Someone said, “What a lucky shot.” That famous golfer turned and said, “Yes, and the more I practice, the luckier I get.”

  3. pari

    Dusty,Sometimes jealousy comes in the back door. I think that was my point with the whole luck issue (or at least one of those points) . . . we think we’re being clever by citing luck when what we’re really doing is making vinegar wine out of sour grapes.

    I adore that U2 quote. Thank you.

  4. pari

    Will,That sounds like a classical Arnie to me.

    There’s also the saying that goes something like “good fortune comes to those who are prepared for it.”

    Same concept. It’s not a bolt out of the blue.

  5. Jake Nantz

    Oh yeah, I can see jealousy being a problem, but I haven’t had that particular problem yet. My issue is something you mentioned earlier…arrogance. Not so much in the “Mine is better than that!” so much as “Mine is good, why isn’t it selling?” And so I keep working, just like you said. But it’s there like the old hand-me-down sofa from Grandma that smells, and as ashamed of it as I may be, I can’t seem to get it to leave.

  6. pari

    Jake,I don’t think it’s arrogance you’re describing as much as self-prodding. Yes, there’s the ugliness of sour grapes that your work hasn’t sold yet, but if you didn’t believe it was good, why did you write it in the first place? Why would you be trying to sell it?

    Having confidence in yourself and your work isn’t the same as being arrogant about it. I think the latter comes in when you feel your writing is perfect and everyone else is just plain stupid for not agreeing 😉

  7. Tammy Cravit

    If I’m going to draw inspiration for my attitude from Shakespeare, it’s going to be this quotation of his, long my favorite: “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” Sure, some people get lucky, but over time the odds favor the persistent, the dedicated, the hard-working.

    Oh, and the Shakespeare quote is actually my second favorite, now that I think about it; my first favorite is the following stage direction from The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

  8. Dana King

    Great post. You hit two of my favorite aphorisms, opportunity meeting preparation, and luck increasing in proportion to work.

    I think writers are often optimists much the way golfers are. A golfer can hack up a course for four hours, require scientific notation to mark his score, and all he’ll talk about is the six iron he hit stiff on 12, or the 30-foot putt he made on 16.

    Writers remember getting a tee shirt as payment for a short story, chapters well received at a writers group meeting, or an encouraging word from someone they respect. That’s why they keep doing it every day.

    If they’re lucky.

  9. pari

    Dana,Thank you.

    I think most of us write because we have to. Those wondrous words of kindness, the pay (albeit trade sometimes), the joy of sharing are some of the reasons we stick with it when the going gets difficult.

  10. Jake Nantz

    Mr. King,I love that analogy. I’ve always been one who, when someone sees my sticks and asks “Do you play?” I always respond, “I attempt. No one has ever called what I do playing.” Then again, I think it was Mark Twain who called golf “A good walk, spoiled.”

    But it’s so true that golfers, like writers, will remember the most miniscule detail if it makes us feel good. That’s our lot in life, I s’pose.

  11. pari

    I’ve never played golf . . . don’t know the actual references but do know the feel of the comment — the optimism and joy squeezed out of long moments where things aren’t as fun.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Pari, sorry to come so late to this, yet again. The perils of constant travel.

    Great post. And Tammy – I’ve always loved that stage direction, too!

    But seeing as we’re all quoting, I’ll mangle Ovid:

    ‘I see better ways and I approve of them, but I follow others.’


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