Last week, as I faced off against my ever cocky teenaged fencing opponent, it occurred to me: I was going to lose.
Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve been graced with this epiphany. I have never been the speediest turtle, nor the most coordinated. Because I am old and crafty and gifted with decent stamina and taller than everybody under the age of 10 in class, I’ve been able to hold my own for the first few months. But now, the little ones are improving and gunning for me. The older teens, the ones who have the agility of Spiderman and the reflexes of Flash, have been killing me since day one. And the middle group, the ones who make me work for my wins, are catching up. Last week, I got skewered badly enough that my husband, who after seeing me kicked across the barn by my temperamental TB tends to be pretty blase about my daily injuries, actually noticed the bruise.
So, as I stood there staring across the blade of Mr. Teenaged Superhero, I realized I needed a new strategy, one which, even if I couldn’t win, would allow me not to lose. Preferably a strategy that did not involve being shish-kabobbed. So no more mad dashes forward. No more desperate attempts to land a hit. No more leaving my vulnerable side exposed as I charged across the floor.
And you know what? It mostly kind of worked. I emerged unscathed from my first match, and got hit only once during my second. (Granted, these were short practice sessions, not full-on matches, but I was pretty happy.) Of course, I didn’t score any points, and not getting hit sometimes involved throwing myself backward in a distinctly ungraceful way as opposed to the fluid footwork my instructor prefers, but hey, you can’t have everything.
Writing is a little bit like fencing a superhero. It’s a business which, if we’re not careful, will stab us in the heart every time we let it. We get a form rejection from our dream agent. The editor who bought our best friend’s book won’t even glance at ours. Our contract is for a miniscule amount, not the six-figure check we’d hoped for. We sell a single book, not the three title series we’ve worked on for years.
If we see each setback as failure, there’s no reason to keep at it. Instead, we need to change how we see the game. The form rejection is a chance to hone our query until an agent can’t refuse us. The editor who turns down our novel is telling us the writing’s just not ready and giving us a chance to improve. The small advance gives us room to grow. The single title takes the pressure off during the writing process. If nothing else, we can focus on one chapter, one page, one sentence, on making those words as perfect as we can, one word at a time.
I don’t fence because I expect to be in the Olympics. I do it because, even when I’m losing, it’s fun. Or it’s supposed to be, anyhow. It’s only when I lose sight of my goals, when I focus too much on winning, that it becomes unpleasant. And, ironically, the more I try to win the more I leave myself open to mistakes. So if I can just focus on enjoying the game, and on not losing, I come out ahead. It’s the same with writing.
At the heart of things, writing is supposed to be enjoyable, and it’s far too easy to lose sight of that fact.
I’m a Penguins fan (the cartoon, not the hockey team). And as Skipper says, “That’s not failure. That’s redefined mission objectives.”
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