Many of the truly important lessons in life come at a cost. They also seem to be the ones that bring us the most satisfaction.
Case in point: Two days ago, I earned my black belt in Tae Kwon Do. After more than four years of incredibly hard work, too many bruises, pain, a broken big toe and a lot of frustration, I finally crossed that rubicon.
Master Kim, the man who runs our Do Jang, commented several times during the testing about the fact that he was impressed that I’d never given up, not even when things looked bleak.
But to me, that’s only part of the story. The bigger narrative was that I never stopped trying, in spite of my physical limitations, to get better at this martial art. Each setback became a dare, a personal challenge not merely to succeed, but to excel.
Usually, discussions about perseverance descend into platitudes. The most common one is the idea that a person simply has to hold on to the dream no matter what. When we’re talking about publication, the implication is that if you put your work out there and keep on writing, you’ll get published someday.
"Just hold on," we murmur. "Don’t give up. It’ll happen."
But that’s not true. Not everyone gets published.
"But, Pari," you say. "Why are you trying to bring me down? Everyone else says it’s just a numbers game. If I send out my stuff to enough publishers, someone will eventually buy it. Right?" Your voice raises an octave here. "Right?"
"Um, maybe." At this point in our conversation, I might back away. After all, my message could seem like a real bummer. Everyone knows someone who disproves it, too. Who hasn’t met a writer who talks about perseverance being the key, who claims that all you need is stick-to-itive-ness to land that three-book deal?
You know what? I’m beginning to think that’s utter crap.
Let’s not sugar coat this anymore. I think we authors ought to be more candid. Rather than only offering encouraging and predictable cliches, we might say something like this: "You’re not published? Is it possible it’s because your work isn’t ready yet?"
No. We’re NEVER that frank.
We never even raise the issue. Instead, we continue blathering about keeing your eyes on the prize, never abandoning your goals, going for the gusto, blah blah blah . . .
What an incredible disservice to those who truly seek our perspective and/or advice.
The longer I’m in this profession, the more I’ve come to realize: Commitment isn’t enough. You have to see a project through until it’s the best it can be.
If my first manuscript had been published, I’m not sure I’d still be a novelist. Quick success would’ve prevented me from learning that I had to strive for more. Since that attempt more than eight years ago, I’ve gotten to experience discouragement, self-doubt and despair. I’ve had to earn enough rejections to single-handedly deforest a couple of mid-sized islands. My mettle has been so sorely tested it looked as red and raw as carpaccio.
All of the years I spent trying to get published taught me the value of perseverance-plus, the absolute necessity of trying harder rather than blaming others for my lack of success. As a result, I’ve never taken this ride for granted. With three books under my belt, I’m working with more dedication than ever to hone and enrich my craft.
I think it’s this continuation, the push to improve, that defines a career over time. I got in the habit of trying harder with each project years before I was published. That habit has been reinforced tenfold since.
Perseverance goes beyond a single goal accomplished. It’d be such a service to add that critical concept to the equation every time we published writers encourage anyone who wants to venture down the same bumpy and gorgeous road.
Because determination is just the beginning.
It’s how you respond to the challenges — and your unrelenting commitment to improvement — that will help you reach your goals and make them relevant and satisfying for the rest of your life.
Thank you for your insights. I don’t find that kind of advice discouraging at all. I rather assumed that with “determination” and “preserverance” also came “striving for improvement”, “learning the market”, and “polishing skills”.
The best advice is the kind that helps a person have a better chance at reaching his or her goal. If that advice is that my work may not yet be ready for publication and I need to hone my skills, I don’t find that discouraging at all, because that’s something I can change.
If you said that my chances of winning the lottery were better than my chances of getting published no matter how hard I worked to improve my writing, THAT would be discouraging (please don’t say that, even if it’s true).
Great post, Pari.
I often think that some people equate perseverance and stubbornness. They tell me that they’ve sent their work to 100 agents and got rejections from all, but when I asked them if they’ve re-written or changed things, they look at me like I’m daft.
To me, perseverance is not losing sight of your goal and doing everything in your power to achieve it.
Oh, and most of the time, a little luck is needed.
Congratulations on the black belt, Pari!
It seems that you’ve taken that “stay at it – keep getting better – luck doesn’t hurt” mantra to heart.
Pari — First off, congratulations on earning your black belt.
I agree with the point you made above. Sometimes I think people think that as long as they “keep their eyes on the prize” it’ll just happen. But keeping your eye on it requires hard work. That much I know. Sugar-coating certainly doesn’t do any favors. It’s like those commercials say “If I can do it, then anyone can.” I see two things wrong with that statement. 1) It makes it seem like something is not an accomplishment. 2) It’s almost like that person is saying they didn’t have to do a whole lot or is undermining what they did acheive.
The way I see it, if all you seek is praise, how are you going o know what you need to improve?
This is a wonderful post, Pari. I think it was Vince Flynn who gave a talk in Nashville about encouragement, citing a child who wants to be a singer, but can’t sing. As a parent, what’s your obligation – to continue to encourage your child to be a singer knowing they will fail, or gently telling them that they need to look for a new direction?
It’s the same for the published authors out there. What Will said happens a lot — for an unpublished author, that gritty determination to keep submitting, keep getting rejected, is vital to landing the deal. But an unwillingness to change your work, to read the signs, will only cause frustration.
Not everyone who wants to be a writer can be a writer, though everyone thinks they can. I can’t sing. I can’t draw or paint. I wish I could, I’d love to be able to, but I can’t. I recognized those limitations long ago.
K.,The lottery? No, I don’t think it’s that bad for most on the publication journey.
I’m trying to come up with some reasonable responses for the people who ask advice about publication.
You see, I wrote this post because I’ve been guilty of that glossy encouragment and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s unkind even though meant kindly.
One question I’m fooling around with is: Why do YOU think it hasn’t been bought/picked up yet?
From there I’ll be able to tell if the person is ready for real input or simply wants a platitude.
You’re absolutely right about that equation of perseverance and stubbornness.
And a person needs to know when to change his or her work and when it really is a matter of something else.
I’ve stuck with my NM series for three books now and am writing a fourth. I would bring my heart tremendous joy to have the series picked up by a bigger publisher for the distribution — and I still think that’s possible. But, I’m also more realistic: if the series doesn’t get a wider audience, I’m still going to write it for my smaller one (as long as UNM Press wants the books).
This is an example of realistic perseverance.
The whole numbers-game theory concerns me vis a vis publishing because it’s a prevalent myth — and has a grain of truth.
Thank you, Louise.
I can say with true conviction that earning that black belt is one of the high moments in my life because when I started, I never dreamed I’d be able to do it.
Luck?Well, it was lucky when we found this particular Do Jang because another might not have had the same philosophy of personal growth.
R.J.,Thank you so much.
Your two points are very well taken.
“If I do it, anyone can.” That’s simply baloney. I’m 50 years old. I have arthritis in both of my big toes. I am physically unable to bend them back and that makes several moves in TKD extraordinarily difficult/awkward/impossible. So, it’s bull to say that I can do a flying side kick into a flip and live to tell about it.
The whole robbing of the sense of accomplishment or diminishing that reality are both interesting points. They might just be a good subject for a new post.
I think “Luck” is misleading sometimes too.
JT,Your comment is absolutely right on. I’ve faced that with one of my children who is absolutely tone deaf. She wanted to perform a song in front of the entire school and I know the outcome would be devastating for her. That was one of the most difficult moments in my life — forcing her to realize that particular limitation.
HOWEVER, we started her on a musical instrument and she’s doing beautifully with it.
This is an example of changing, of learning how to keep progressing and getting joy at the same time.
I agree with you Pari, perseverance isn’t enough. I was 23 when I first realized I wanted to be a writer. Now I’m 43,receiving rejections for my first novel. I am not bitter, far from it. In fact I am enlightened. I have improved so much since those first attempts at serious writing. I have many projects abandoned beside the road, simply because they were no good. And even though I have only gotten form rejections so far for my new novel, they have taught me a lot. Like most folks it is my goal to be published and have readers enjoying my books. However in the meantime and thereafter, I plan to keep improving my craft. One thing I’ve found to be true in my case, and may bring small comfort to others unpublished, is that writing brings its own rewards. And its still a worthwhile endeavor, published or not.
James,Great comments. Thank you.
You bring up a very important point: It’s easy to forget some of the reasons we started writing. For most of us, it’s because we had a story–or stories–to tell and it was a kind of compulsion for self-satisfaction. Then, we thought, “Hey, I want to share this with other people.” Or, “Hey, I want to make money off of all this work.”
And the writing became something else.
Nowadays, when I speak at workshops or other venues about writing, I always say, “Not everyone who writes WANTS to be published. And, that’s just fine.”
The honing of craft IS satisfying in and of itself.
James,You’ve been working toward publication for a long time. I hope your dreams come true.
First of all, let me add my voice to the chorus of congratulations on your accomplishment, Pari!
That said, I think there are a number of things that play into the problem you’ve described. One is that, unlike other kinds of art, writing sort of intrinsically demands an audience. Let me explain. I have a friend who’s a writer, and one of his hobbies is abstract painting. He’s had some measure of success at it, with at least one show in a local gallery that I know of. But even if he hadn’t, the simple act of filling canvas with paint and hanging it on his living room wall gives him pleasure. Writing things that nobody else reads doesn’t seem to produce the same kind of pleasure. The desire to have others read our stories is the reason for writing them down instead of simply letting them play out in our heads.
The other problem, of course, is that not everyone has the talent to write publishable-quality work, and not everyone who has the talent has the drive and determination it takes to succeed in the face of such daunting odds. One of the things I’m doing right now to pave my way out of the hated day job is getting back into commercial photography, so I’ve been reading a lot on that subject. One statistic I read which shocked me was that 90% of photography businesses fail in the first five years, and of those, 90% do NOT fail because of a lack of talent on the part of their owners. Being talented is important, but knowing how to run a business counts, too. The people who are unprepared for that reality simply don’t succeed. Writing for publication may be an art, but it’s likewise a business also, and success means being prepared for that reality.
There’s no question that being kind usually beats being nasty. But I agree with you that encouraging people to pursue their dreams, without giving them either a realistic assessment of where they are on that journey, what’s possible and not possible given where they are, and what they can do to improve, doesn’t really help anyone. I understand the desire not to hurt people’s feelings, but sometimes a dose of honesty is kinder in the long run than painting an unrealistically rosy picture, I think.
I so want to pick up a paint brush and experiment around with art. As well as play the cello again. I have no desire to do it professionally. Just for fun. I agree with Tammy–some activities are just pursued for the pure joy of it.
If you do something for money, it has to have a commercial aspect. That’s just reality. It can be artistic and literary, but someone’s gotta want to buy it.
And congrats on the black belt! That’s a real accomplishment. No one can take that away from you.
p.s. This post is a perfect segue to mine next week!
What a thought-provoking response. I have met a few writers who do write for themselves, but — maybe for the reasons you describe — they are indeed few. Almost every one else wants and expects to be published, to make megabucks and to become famous.
There are plenty of opportunities for reality checks, but I also hesitate to sound negative all the time — and that’s how it’s often taken. I know the fault in is me, but it’s easier to be blanketly positive than to get down to the nitty gritty.
I usually am more frank with folks who I sense really want to know rather than just want to hear the same old same old.
Naomi,You’re right, of course, about being professional if you want to make money at your creative endeavor. That’s certainly a lesson I continue to learn.
And, thanks for the congrats. You’re right, this accomplishment is something I’ll hold in my heart forever.
AND AND ANDI can’t wait to read your posts next Monday Aug. 11 and Aug. 18. It’s going to be fun to enjoy your writing again right here on the ‘Rati!
I think this is a great post, and I think your new question, “Why do you think it hasn’t been picked up yet?” is a great, non-affrontive way to gather if the writer you are speaking to is serious or not. If they give you, “Hell I don’t know. These fools just don’t get what I’m writing” or “It’s just luck anyway, I’ve got a bestseller here!” then you know your response should be a kindly “Well, keep working at it!” and let it go. They aren’t going to learn anything more because they don’t think they need to.
If you get an honest response about “Maybe my description is too heavy” or “I’m worried I may be repeating my attribution on quotes”, then you can get into a more in depth conversation, because they are realistic about writing as a profession, not just a hobby or (worse) an entitlement.
And as far as luck, I don’t know much about the business from personal experience (but I’ve read lots!…), but I know that saying ‘luck’ is involved is a cop out. You make your own luck by constantly getting better and improving your craft. At least that’s what I keep telling myself and my students.
Oh, and congrats on the black belt. Muay Thai has no belt system, so it’s tough to gauge when you’ve reached that “next level” without getting in the ring and coming out less bruised than usual. Black belt is a serious big deal. Congratulations.
Dear Jake,Thank you. I’m feeling pretty darn good about the black belt. Now I need to apply that incredible self-discipline to redoubling my writing efforts (it’s been a long, distracted summer).
I’m tending to agree about the whole concept of “luck,” though I do know that once you commit to something there’s a marvelous sychronicity that can happen that LOOKS like luck.
But as you say, luck involves putting yourself — or your work — in the position for things to really happen.
Keeee yahhh!!!Thanks, Fran. I did kick butt — broke four boards, just totally slam-dunked the form I’d created and had a blast during the entire event. Really, it was fun.
But boy am I glad it’s over with.
Many good points in the post and the comments. I was glad to see synchronicity mentioned. I moved half-way around the world on that concept alone — everything clicked, it felt right, and the adventure was as fun as the arriving, and I’m still here 13 years later.
One idea not mentioned is the definition of ‘published’. Does it mean a big NY house is the only thing that will scratch the itch? Or are there mid-range targets that build achievement and confidence along the way until being great enough to satisfy that BNYH market? Heck, I get jazzed from seeing my blog statistics! Those little measures help. Crit group comments are little stars along the way to be treasured. ‘Being read’ can come in many forms. Making money at being read is another level, not the only level. Aim high, for sure, but consider lowering your sights along the way to earn rewards for the achievements you have attained.
Hi Pari – sorry to come late to this one (yet again, I know).
Many congrats on the black belt! Remind me not to annoy or antagonise you in any way … ;-]
This is a great post, and something that needed saying. While I agree totally that perseverance alone is not enough, I would add that there are probably far more writers published who are persistent, than there are writers published who are talented.
Talent alone is not enough, either.
And I love the singing analogy – as one who can’t carry a tune in a bucket – but can I take that a step further?
What do you do if you have a child who can sing – that’s not the question. The question is, how WELL can they sing? Well enough to warrant encouraging them through the heartache and pain of tramping round all those auditions, trying to get a break? All those long tearful evenings convincing them not to give up?
I KNOW I can’t sing. I’d love to, but I can’t. Play guitar, yes, I can do that, but sing well enough to do more than accompany myself in the shower, no way. Not that I didn’t try – I used to play guitar and sing in a pub group where one slightly dodgy voice could be easily lost. But try and cut a record? Uh-huh.
A straightforward lack of talent is easier to recognise and ultimately to come to terms with, being borderline is quite another matter.
The problem is, how do you know if what you have is borderline or something special?
Jan,I think being published can mean many things. The University of New Mexico Press is my publisher so far — not one of the big NYC houses — and I had to dance just as hard as my friends with St. Martin’s and Simon & Schuster.
I don’t think it’s so much “lowering your sites” as being aware and proud of the accomplishments and milestones along the way . . .
Every rejection recieved means that a query was sent; that’s a big deal.
Every story sold or read is a big deal too.
Oh, Zoe,What an important point. I wish we could’ve discussed it earlier . . . just because it’s so critical.
You’re absolutely right. TALENT isn’t enough either. That IS where persistence comes in.
It’s such an obvious and crucial point. Thank you for bringing it up.
re: the black beltI know you’re darn tough and have a lot more expertise when it comes to self-defense than I do. I’m still learning . . .
Maybe, instead of “luck,” the word should be “timing.” I think some books get picked up because they’ve hit the paranormal or romantic suspense wave at the right moment. Those same well-written stories, if submitted six months later when the market has had its fill, would be declined.