If you’re like me, you have trouble with the usual encouragement and sayings that are meant to give you strength/courage/optimism.
You know perfectly well what I mean. I’m not going to give sources for these, because I hear them from everywhere, and my mind isn’t really good at buying anything wholesale. Hint, my mind buys it even less if it comes with a cute kitten. I think I started hating motivational posters before I had my first job (Which this being the eighties was PLASTERED in them). (Though at one time I did have the “hang in there” poster because the kitten was adorable. So, I’m inconsistent. Deal with it.) We are naturally attracted to demotivational posts out of frustration with the easy pollyannaish motivational posts, and annoyance with the people who believe in them. Hold on to that thought. It’s important. Seeing people for whom things seem to work, particularly things that our annoying brains tell us are far more complex than the poster/maxim/story is making them out to be causes annoyance. Frustrated annoyance. And a desire to believe the opposite. If people tell you “Hang in there” you know you’re going to drop hard. You just know it.
Some of it is born of experience, sure, but be honest with yourself, you expected it all along. Remember that too, it’s important.
One of the things that annoys me most is the saying that “the best predictor of whether you’ll succeed is how many times you fail.” Mostly because that’s not how that works. That’s not how any of that works.
That saying is sort of the incarnation of survivor bias. The more you’ve gotten knocked down AND still managed to get up, the more likely you are to succeed, sure. But that’s because you’re already by any definition a fairly exceptional person.
I’ll use writing for a bunch of this because it’s THE experience I have, but honestly, you could use anything, from your love life to your attempts and being the world’s best tiddly winks player. (Why am I obsessed with tiddly winks? Well, my eidetic, brilliant brother spent something like 12 years devoting all his free time to playing tiddly winks, a game that in Portugal, usually was left behind at age six or so (for boys. Girls didn’t play it.) In retrospect, it was an addictive behavior. If he’d had video games, he’d probably have been addicted to that. It’s not unusual for very, very bright people to need to dull the pain of… well… of the world not being made for them. And if they have an addictive personality, even if they don’t fall into drugs or alcohol, they’ll get addicted to something REALLY weird. For one of the worst times of my life, I was addicted to fanfic for a TV series that I never watched. Why? Well, it kept the brain minimally occupied so I could dream my life away without DOING anything. Yes, brother eventually stopped it. But meanwhile my parents kept joking his ambition in life was to be the world’s best tiddly winks player.)
Most people who want to be writers never start. Laziness? Maybe. Perhaps. Sitting down and putting fingers on keyboard is not physical work, but it is work.
I’d argue though that most of the time the problem is not so much laziness as the fear of never getting better. I know that’s true for almost everyone who tries to draw anything.
And trying to write a story is a series of compromises. In your mind the thing is multicolored and gigantic, with 100 actors and 1000 elephants. But you can’t write that. It’s simply not something you can put on a page. No one is going to follow that sort of diffuse action. So you compromise. You’ll tell this person’s story. Maybe 10 actors. And one elephant.
And even then, if you’re a beginner you’re going to botch it. For instance, it’s perfectly normal for beginning authors not to be able to handle more than two characters on the page at a time.
So most people give up. Our model as humans seems to be “perfect first time, or I’m no good” but also most people don’t believe they can get THAT much better. (Hint, you can.)
I no longer remember the statistics, and since I don’t know how they collect them anyway, they’re probably meaningless, but it’s something like:of a million people who ever thought to write a book, one actually does it. Of course, there’s no way of measuring how seriously they thought of it, so again, it’s just a vague indication.
We do have more solid ground for people who actually wrote anything significant AND submitted it, ever getting accepted. The ratio is something astronomical like 100000 to one.
Why? Because most people give up after the first rejection. On this, I’m going on my experience in many writers’ groups over the years. Any number of people I met along the way wrote ONE NOVEL. It was a good novel, in most cases (two were brilliant.) They then spent the next five, ten, fifteen years trying to sell it, so single mindedly focused on selling it, that they never wrote another. And the novel got rejected. It got EPICALLY rejected. It got rejected by every reputable outfit and a dozen of the oh, 100 or so I knew ended up falling for scams like “pay us to read” or “pay us to publish.” When this failed to obtain success, they stopped writing. Well, honestly, they’d stopped writing years before, in favor of selling the one novel. But that’s something else. The truth is that they looked at that novel as “proof of concept” and since it didn’t sell, they knew nothing would sell and they gave up.
This is understandable, but completely contrary to reality. So contrary it doesn’t even coexist in the same plane. It’s part of the lies we tell ourselves and the world tells us “if your thing is good enough, it will be a bestseller.” Doesn’t work like that. You’re not submitting your novel to some all-knowing perfect judge. You’re submitting it to a person who is flawed and has issues in his own life and views your story through their own lens. And sometimes their lens has bloody nothing to do with anything you could anticipate when writing the novel. For instance, one of my series took SIXTEEN years to sell, because it was weird, but also because the one house who WOULD have bought it rejected it with “we bought something very similar just last week.” You know, in such circumstances I assume they’re lying. But I know what they bought, and yes, it’s very similar. And it went on to be a bestseller.
Let’s assume you’re one of the very resilient few and write a second novel and a third novel, while trying to sell the first. (I wrote nine. Three of those have sold since.)
The fairy of good fortune comes and touches your novel. It sold. YAY.
Good for you. Be aware the chances of its becoming a bestseller is not dependent on quality, but on distribution, cover, and how much the house pushes it. Heck, the chances of it becoming a GOOD seller are minimal.
Most people who sell a book never sell a second. I don’t know how many, but way in excess of half.
By the way, all of this applies to indie. Most people who put a novel up never sell more than a dozen copies. Discoverability is the problem, mostly. Just advertising your novel everywhere is not going to make it a bestseller (for one indie is heavily biased for series.) I’m not in writers’ groups now, but I KNOW just from people who write me and who decided they were “no good” after a novel or a short story that the “drop out because of perceived failure” rate is about the same.
So, what about if you sell a second or a third, or a fourth novel? Yeah. My career has died… eight times now. Utterly dead. At one time it took me almost two years to sell anything to anyone again. I did a full relation of my career here. Well, more or less full. I elided some set backs. And there’s been one more since that was written. Without going into details let’s say my own remaining option — ONLY option — is going indie with both feet. Whether I’ll ever recover my IP is something else again. No, I’m not ecstatic about any of this. More on that later.
One of the most bitterly funny things about me is that most people perceive me as an optimist. One of you in comments yesterday asked where do you master the will and the optimism to try again. Ah!
It has nothing to do with will or optimism. Seriously. Absolutely nothing. It has to do with being alive and wishing to remain so.
My family is notoriously unlucky. I was born knowing that or at least imbibed it with mother’s milk. Seriously “if we made baby bonnets, babies would be born without a head” unlucky. The stories of wars, investments and just general life in which we backed the losing side KNOWING IT WAS THE LOSING SIDE is extensive.
On dad’s side (you don’t want to know about mom’s truly) we tend towards melancholic depression, dark sense of humor and sad poetry. Because I’m half mother’s daughter, my depressions can get way more active and self destructive. Which is why I learned to control them early.
To all this is added a disposition I’ve started calling “born owing money.” (Though in fact I wasn’t, mostly because my parents have a debt-phobia, one they passed one.) You don’t approach the world as though it can give you things. You approach it as though you’re afraid of bothering it, and would much rather it didn’t notice you.
How much are all of these attitudes responsible for the repeated failures in my career. I don’t know. When your lens is flawed, what do you see through.
I don’t believe in affirmations. Sometimes I’d like to, but I don’t. They’re like the motivational posters. It does you no good to write on your mirror “I’m beautiful and everyone loves me” if you know with bone deep certainty that this isn’t true.
And yet, I know from observing others lives that what you start out with really influences the outcome. And by that I don’t mean your gifts, talents, beauty, or even wealth.
A little man who looks like a monkey and smells like a diseased weasel but who believes he’s the master stallion of the world will have women hanging off him. A smart, handsome man who thinks he’ll never get a romantic relationship will die bitter and alone.
Part of it is that if you don’t believe something is possible, you don’t even see the opportunity when offered. Part of it is that when you get it, and attempt it, you keep expecting it to crash. And part of it is that you don’t protest bad treatment, don’t ask for what you deserve.
i.e. Yeah, your beliefs about life and yourself can set you up for failure.
I realized last year I simply did not believe I could be successful in writing. What does that influence? Well, everything. From how much I put in my writing, to how much I write, to how much I promo, to…
“But Sarah,” you say “I’ve really failed over and over and over at thing x. Why should I try again?”
And I’ve failed over and over and over again at becoming spectacularly successful, or at least having a publisher recognize the potential of anything I wrote. (Weirdly a ghost written novel for another writer made her career. Odd, uh?)
So, why not just lay down? Why not give up?
It depends. Is it something you CAN give up? By which I mean without significantly losing part of who you are and what you want from life?
I could give up sewing or art tomorrow. I probably won’t, but I could. They’re “interesting” occupations, not part of what I am and how I’m made to function. Not the thing I’ve wanted all my life.
I’ll eventually have the kids move out of state (probably) and see them only a few times a year. That’s fine. My relationship as a mother is something created to be given up (if successful.) If we’re lucky, we’ll replace it with friendship. But could I give up my marriage? Well, we’ve had our ups and downs, but I fight for it because no I couldn’t. Not without losing a significant part of myself.
The crucial question is “And if you give up, then what?”
For something that’s central to you, the answer is usually “I don’t know. I do nothing.” or perhaps “I’ll just drift.” That might not be the answer, in those words, but it is what will happen.
In the few times I thought I HAD to give up, I undertook bizarre, mind numbing activities. To avoid doing the beloved thing, because that hurt.
So, where do you find the strength — ah! — and the optimism — ahah! — to get up again?
You don’t. You get up because you have to. Because there’s nothing else on the other side of giving up.
Look, we tend to think in static categories. “I’ll just give up.” Or “I’ll succeed.” Or “I’ll fail.”
But none of these are permanent. Nothing stays still, not even our emotional states. All of them are followed by “and then what?”
Even those who succeed will EVENTUALLY experience failure. Trust me, I have a ton of friends who are bestsellers. Most of them have experienced catastrophic failure more times than success.
“The key is to get up one more time than you fall down.” Sure, but how. From what?
From a fear of what happens if you don’t.
I hesitate to write this, because the person might read this blog and know himself. But if he does, perhaps it will help, because it’s high time he understood it. Hell, we saw it happen and we didn’t understand it.
Decades ago, when we were young and green as grass, and Dan was just starting up his career, we met someone about our age (a little older)who wanted more than anything to be a writer. His education and background were different from ours and he thought this was massively important but it wasn’t. When we were all young, he was starting out in a profession with just as much potential as Dan’s, and he was moderately successful and made just a little less than Dan. And hell, he had advantages I never had in writing. For one, he was a native speaker of English. For another, he had some vague idea of how publishing worked. Very vague, but better than mine.
Over the years, I wrote and wrote and wrote. It took me 9 years from first sending anything out to selling a short story at semi-pro rates. It took me 13 to sell a novel (and that series crashed hard.)
I’m not made of iron. I’m naturally pessimistic. Sometimes rejections hit so hard they disabled me for months. Not just being unable to write, but sometimes spending months crying and trying to hide it from Dan and the boys. One day I had 60 some rejections ON MY BIRTHDAY.
But there was nothing else, so I kept writing. Along the way I stopped here and there, tried to give up and got some really spectacularly stupid addictions (fanfic for TV series I’d never watched, for instance.) And carried them on for months/a year before realizing it was not just making me useless, it was making me hate other people/resent them for no good reason. Like, I hated everyone who was still writing — even my closest friends — even though they had NO success. Because they were writing, and I couldn’t/had given it up. When I started being mean to my kids, because I was hurting and someone else had to hurt, is when I realized I had to pull up. Even the stupid addictions are hard to give up. Trust me. It was difficult.
Along the way I had some successes too. Some critical acclaim. A couple of awards. Series that sold well enough I had the income of an underpaid secretary now and then for some years.
Our used-to-be-friend? Not so much.
He had a story accepted and the magazine went under without publishing it (note this happened eight times with the first story I sold. It killed magazines.) and this seemed to be it for him. He wrote a few more stories because all our friends were writing them, but some of them he seemed to think he was being clever and mocking our idea you could just write many stories. He seemed to think he was writing very bad stuff. In fact, that’s some of his best, but never mind.
And he became more and more invested in the idea he’d write a novel, it would be a world-shattering success, he’d be set for life. This is not the way things happen.
I don’t know if he tried it. One of our kids thinks he did. And got rejected. Possibly.
What I know is that year on year, as the “defeats”– and he seemed to view MY successes (such as they were, dear lord) as his defeats — accumulated he did less and less and less. He restricted himself more and more.
And though it took us years to realize it, he came to first resent us, then hate us. It manifested in a hundred different ways, all under the flag of continued friendship. We felt sorry for him and tried to help him, but every time we saw him, it became more unpleasant. Until two years ago at the end of the year he went too far and at a time when we had neither financial nor emotional resources to handle it. He has tried — at least twice — since then to “avenge” himself by bringing crisis into our life, at a time when he thought we were at a party or enjoying ourselves. (We weren’t, but that’s something else again.)
Normally I hate losing friends. I hate cutting off contact with anyone. This time I realized I was ridiculously relieved.
I realized over the years he’d acquired the habit of belittling us, attacking us verbally, inflicting his presence on us at the least wanted times, and generally being a pain in the ass.
See the thing above. This was an immensely talented individual who fell down a couple of times and decided that was good. He’d just lay down and rot. But he couldn’t help knowing what he’d wasted. And he couldn’t help resenting those of us who had gone on to do ANYTHING. Anything, even my halting, painful, not very profitable career seemed amazing to him, and also like “if there was any justice, I should have had that.”
From the amount of times he tried to bleed us (financial emergencies. Loans never paid. Etc. etc. etc.) he also viewed us as “very wealthy.” (We’re okay. We make do. A little stressed now for reasons that should pass in a year. But mostly through the miracle of living beneath our means, buying from thrift stores, etc.)
You can’t lie there. You can’t just lie there. You’re alive. You can’t stop. Because you can’t. Because that’s not how humans work.
Not getting up is a choice, and not one that ends in a static option. You’re not just going to be there, forever, world without end. No. You’re going to become bitter, resentful, envious of everyone and everything, even JUST those who are still trying. You’re going to say “I wish I had their optimism” without having a clue if they have it, because they must have SOMETHING you lack. You’re going to think it’s their academic education (ah!) or their higher class background (ahah. Doesn’t translate between countries) or that they’re prettier than you, or have better clothes, or … Lord alone knows.
And in the process you’re going to destroy everything, including the regard of people who once cared for you. You’re going to push everyone away. Most of all you’re going to destroy yourself.
The opposite of trying once more isn’t just laying there. The opposite of trying is dying. And a horrible death in bitterness and self-destruction.
The example I gave is NOT the only one I’ve seen, it is just perhaps the most spectacular example of it I’ve ever seen.
When you fall and decide you can’t get up, you’re choosing to reign in hell, rather than serve in heaven. You don’t have to be religious to understand that. Milton knew a thing or two about people. You are NOT lacking strength or optimism. Because those aren’t needed to get up again, and try again. You can do that from nothing but stubbornness.
No. You’re choosing to lie there and die because your pride is hurt. You should have been an amazing success. Don’t they recognize your genius? Fools! you’ll show them.
Only the only person you can destroy is yourself. And you do.
This is why I crawl up, on bloodied and hands and knees and try again. Despite total pessimism and lack of strength. Over and over and over again.
If they made a motivational kitten poster of me, it would be too bloodied and gruesome to hang in an office. My spirit animal is Inigo Montoya.
Will I succeed? I don’t know. I am actually trying to convince myself success is possible, because I’ve realized mind set is important.
Will I lie down and die? No. Because that’s not an option. Failure is not just a static state. It’s decaying and bitterness and giving yourself in to evil. And I’m not doing THAT.
So. Up on bloody knees. Despite weakness and despair, up.
Because there’s nothing else.