I just woke up from the weirdest dream. In my dream, this choir of sweet-voiced children was singing “If you are right and we don’t belong, we’ll fall, don’t fret. It won’t take long.” There were other verses, but as I woke up most of it vanished, leaving only this and “If you are right and it’s beneath that we belong, if we are wrong, it won’t be long.”
It was such a vivid dream – let alone I don’t often dream of people singing – that for a moment or two I thought “wow. I must find a site with those lyrics and post them on the blog, because that is totally the theme song of indie.”
And then I woke up and realized the song was sung to the lyrics of “Love lifts us up where we belong.”
And I realized the song didn’t exist and my post would be slightly different.
So, let’s talk about fate and duty and striving.
I grew up in a culture that believes strongly in fate. I was rocked to sleep to songs about fate inexorably pulling people to doom or triumph as well as to songs about your fate being scripted all ahead of time and there being nothing you can do to escape it.
So I suspect this problem is more mine than other people’s. But I know it’s other people’s too.
Nine times out of ten, when newbies approach me and stammer a question, it is a variation on “do you think this is what I’m supposed to do?” (Why is it that the ones who instead TELL me “this is what I’m supposed to do” are ALWAYS the ones who truly have no aptitude and who ALSO aren’t making progress because they think they’re wonderful already? No, don’t answer that. Because G-d is an author and this is a funny book, I know.)
This question tortured me for years. It still does. The sense that I owe someone a life, that there is something I’m supposed to do, and that “is this what I’m supposed to do?” “Is this the life I should be living?”
(In my case, it is complicated – of course – by my being religious and therefore believing that there is a part I should be playing. But if you interpret my life in that way, He’s been plying the divine two by four against my thick skull since the sixties trying to shove me this way, while I bleated “should I be doing this?”)
Even for those who aren’t religious; even for those who didn’t get saturated in fate with an extra side helping of fortune telling and talismans to avert an evil fate, there seems to be this sense “am I making the best possible use of my life? Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?”
This is possibly because humans are crazy apes, aware of our own, personal mortality, a thing we presume other animals aren’t. (Presume perhaps wrongly. I suspect cats know.) So we know our time is finite, and we look at it as an asset to be used. Hence we get young people wanting “meaningful” jobs and “to do something that matters.”
Writers are particularly prone to this sort of doubt, because we get hit on the nose early and often. Unlike other skilled crafts, we don’t – most of us. There are exceptions – get tutored by a master in the craft and then released into the world knowing we’re at least somewhat good.
No, even those of us who have worked and practiced and think – from what we’ve seen and what we read – that we can’t be wholly bad, can’t be sure. And in the days before indie it was entirely possible to spend a lifetime being rejected by EVERYONE and never breaking in. Particularly as we went towards the nineties and you had to go through an AGENT first. “Get pre-rejected” as it were. Look, if I didn’t write as fast as I do and not been as stubborn as I am, I might not have made it here. I wrote eight – EIGHT – novels, one of them a goat-gagger and got them rejected by EVERYONE before one of them found an agent. And then she claimed she couldn’t sell it and didn’t send it out. And I wrote a ninth, which sold. Two of those books rejected everywhere have now sold. One has done rather well for me. Others were a case of my biting off more than I could chew and/or of trying to cram too much story into too few words because I thought I was supposed to do.
Writing books used to say things like “know when to give up. If it’s affecting your life, breaking up your relationships and devouring your sanity and you’re still not published, it might be time to walk away.”
I suspect the indie path won’t really be any easier. There will be stories you put up that sell barely a copy. Some of these will be your heart’s darlings. Some of the stuff that you put up almost cringing will sell and sell and sell.
And this is not even just for writers, but for everyone who ever tried to do something difficult and tried to reach beyond what they thought they were supposed to do or what they thought they could aspire to. (One of the videos that came up for Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong was of An Officer And A Gentleman. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the movie and I don’t remember whether the song was in it. BUT the story is the quintessential story of reaching beyond what you thought should be allotted to you.)
So you’ll try – whether what you want to do is writing or something else you think would be wonderful and which seems just out of reach – and you’ll fail. And you’ll try again, and you’ll fail, and you’ll start to get discouraged. And you’ll lay awake at night, the thought rounding on your mind, like starving wolves outside a village during a killing frost “What if I’m not supposed to be doing this? What if this is not what I’m supposed to do with my life?”
It is human, I think, to want to avoid pain. I think that whole question is a way to allow you to walk away before you kill yourself trying for something. After all if your ancestor Grog hadn’t limped away from the big mammoth he was trying to take on his own, with his stone ax, you wouldn’t be here.
On the other hand… On the other hand… If he had taken that mammoth the entire village would have eaten like kings for a month and there would be other humans here who weren’t because all the village except Grog died of starvation. (Grog probably ate them and survived that way. This is why I don’t study genealogy.) And that mammoth? It turned out that Grog had already wounded it fatally and it died not very far away, after Grog had stopped following.
So, what am I saying? Am I saying that there is no destiny? No preordained fate? That there is nowhere we should be? Nothing we should do?
Well, I do believe there is a purpose to our life – but then I’m religious – but I don’t believe our fate is scripted. I also believe that our purpose might be something that… fails to occupy our entire life. There is an Agatha Christie story that illustrates this beautiful – unfortunately I can’t remember the title, but it’s one of the Harley Quinn stories – in which someone is about to jump from a cliff, and someone saves him. The person who is saved goes on to play an important role in something. The one who saved him had, himself, contemplated suicide. It is hinted he had to stay alive so he would pass this isolated spot in the dead of night and thereby save this man.
Yeah, I believe you have a divine purpose, but your chances of knowing it or understanding it are minimal. You have to trust that if you do the best you can, you’ll be there at that moment when you need to do what you’re supposed to. (Also, I presume that G-d, like a good programmer has backup loops and you might get re-directed somewhere else.)
But that’s my religious beliefs – and other people’s belly laughs – and not fate. I don’t believe in fate, no.
I believe in people who want something and who want it bad enough to do it. I believe in people who think “So, what if it’s against fate? The gods of fate can stuff it. I’ll still climb that mountain and steal that fire even if there should be hell” or eagle “to pay.”
But shouldn’t you take heed of failures? Perhaps you don’t have the natural talent? Perhaps someone is trying to tell you something?
Look, natural talent has precious little to do with it. If my younger son wanted to be a singer, I’d tell him it would be hard as h*ll because of his sensory issues. I wouldn’t tell him it was impossible and that he could never do it. Deaf people – who want it bad enough – can learn to sing. There are ways to magnify the sound vibrations, so they can feel music and imitate it.
In the same way I wouldn’t tell even the most pitiful beginner writer “you’ll never make it.” I’d give him or her some gentle hints on how to start improving, then leave it up to them to succeed or fail. Because, as that sweetly singing in choir in my dream said, if they don’t have what it takes, they’ll fall… eventually. (Or not. It’s none of my business, anyway.) If they want it, it’s their business to try. If we want it, it’s our business to try.
I don’t remember the rest of the lyrics in my dream, but I have a feeling it said something about kicks in the teeth.
The other day a friend on Face Book posted a thing about “How do you get to success?” Answered with “Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail…….”
Make your own fate. Climb your own mountain.
Your nails might be torn and bloody when you get there, and you might be down to one eye and one good knee. BUT if you want it badly enough, you’ll get there. If it’s a price you’re willing to pay, you’ll get there. Don’t deceive yourself into continuing because it’s “fate” and don’t soothe giving up because “it’s fate.” Make your own decisions, fate or no fate.
Yes, there might be hell to pay. If you want it badly enough to pay the price, you can have it. You can reach beyond what you were taught you could. The price is working beyond what you thought you’re capable of. And to keep going after – by all reasonable thought – you should have been dead. Sure, a man can take a mammoth down alone. Even if the mammoth falls on him. But what the heck, the village will eat well through winter.
You want the fire of the gods? Steal the fire of the gods.
And when the eagle comes to eat your liver? Eat his. Raw.
No one decreed it should be the other way around. It’s up to you to make it the way you want it.