The Years of Busting Ass
A few months back, I was feeling pretty rotten. I was frustrated with the lack of interest in my novel, worried that I had chosen the wrong path when I decided to focus on being a writer, and starting to wonder if I had what I takes to be successful in the publishing industry. I spent three years of my life working on something that perhaps no one would ever read, and I was spending a lot of time asking myself what the point of all that hard work had been.
Then I heard a story on “To The Best of Our Knowledge” (which is an excellent radio show/podcast from Wisconsin Public Radio), and it put all my frustrations into perspective. The story was an interview with psychologist Carol Dweck, who had recently published a book called “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” You can listen to the story itself here, if you’re interested.
The gist of Dweck’s argument is that people respond to failure in two different ways: some people fall apart when they fail and some people learn from their failures. To the people who fall apart, success and failure are measures of worth: failure means they are not intelligent, not talented, and that they never will be. They avoid challenges for the fear of being proven to be unworthy (or incapable) of success. But the people who learn from their failures seem to look at them as obstacles they have overcome, as lessons they have learned. These people seem to thrive, almost, on failure, to become energized by it. They understand that abilities, talents, and intelligence are not attributes a person is born with, but attributes that develop over time and with practice. Talent is less like the bones in your arm, which are more or less always going to be the same (nutrition aside) and more like the muscles, which get bigger and stronger the more they are used.
In some ways, this argument fits quite nicely with my Dorothy Parker apply-the-ass-to-the-chair philosophy; you will only ever get there if you work hard to get there. But what happens if you work hard and you don’t get there? It feels sometimes like a hamster on a wheel — the hamster might think it’s going somewhere, but really it’s just running in place. Dweck argues that we need to look at our failures as a chance to learn something about what we’re going for. Why didn’t it work? What did we learn from the process?
We spend too much time focusing on where we want to end up (in my case, well-respected and widely-read novelist) and not enough time thinking about the process of getting there. Even when we look at people we admire, we don’t see the younger version of those people who stumbled along the way to their success. We don’t look at their struggles, their failures, and say, “Look how persistent they were! Look how hard they worked!” We say, “That person is a genius.” Or worse, “That person was destined for greatness.”
Nobody is destined for greatness. Some people get very, very lucky, but most people who wind up great bust their asses to get there. Their work, their contributions to our society, aren’t just some magical extension of their natural genius, but the result of years and years of passionate, bone-grinding, sweat-flooded hard work. And sure, some people are naturally smarter and more talented than others. But as a writing teacher I once had said, “If you give me a student with natural talent and a student who works hard and ask me which will be a best-seller, I’d bet on the hard worker every time.”
The fact that so many people envision their heroes as geniuses who burst, fully developed from the skulls of gods, makes me really value writers who talk about their failures. I love to hear stories about now-successful writers who struggled in their formative years, not because I’m a glutton for pain (my love of horror films notwithstanding), but because it makes me feel like the success that I want for myself is not so out of reach. Stephen King famously wrote about his collection of rejection slips, thousands of them, from the time that he was a child until he published “Carrie.” And most writers have heard, at this point, about Kathryn Stockett’s 60 rejections for “The Help.” The fact that these writers learned from their rejections, that they kept evolving and persisting even when everybody around them told them to give up is inspiring.
I can look at my novel and say, yes, I hope it does better, but I can also learn from the things that I have done wrong. I have lots of feedback from all those agents who rejected my work, and if I stop looking at those rejections as just letters that spell N-O, and start looking at them as tools for learning the business, I have already gained something. And the years I spent tripping over words and trying to find the rhythm required for writing a novel taught me what kinds of things I need to do to motivate myself to write, what kind systematic approach I should take to writing a piece of work that long, and how to approach agents when I’m ready to publish — those years were prime learning years!
In the end, who knows where my writing will end up? But I can’t know that until the end comes. I have years and years and years to go, and right now the years ahead are for busting ass and learning how to get back up. And that’s okay by me.