Jeff VanderMeer had an interesting post up awhile back that got me to thinking. I don’t remember if it was on his blog or Facebook, and I can’t find it now, but it had to do with how, over time, writers tend to fall by the wayside, overcome by the biz, by personal tragedy, by regret, by challenges, by success, and any other number of things that can knock you out of the writing and publishing business. After a time, as more and more folks fell off the grid, the remaining folks after twenty or thirty or forty years together on this long road, the ones left, had this kind of mutual respect for one another, even if they didn’t exactly like one another.It was the kind of thing that came from having gone through all the shit and joy this business has to offer, and still getting up every morning and trying again.
I started thinking about this again tonight because I had a professional setback this week that hit me harder than I thought it would.
Growing up, my parents always taught me that if you work hard, you’ll succeed. You’ll get all the things you want. This is a very nice idea, but as many of us realized as we grew older, it just wasn’t true. A woman could be president – when the country was ready for it. We could go to Mars – if the public would ever get behind it. We could… we could… we could…
When we talk about “I” accomplishments in the U.S., we tend to ignore the fact that our place in life isn’t always solely up to us and our decisions. Oh, it’s nice to think it is. It makes it easier to think you have control over things that you don’t actually have any control over.
So we tell ourselves that keeping an upbeat attitude will save us from cancer, or being nice to strangers means people will be nice to us, or if we just work hard, it won’t matter who our parents are, or what our race is, or what our gender is, or if we’re too fat or too gay – we’ll simply be rewarded by the glorious, unbiased, us-focused world.
The thing is, the world really does not care about us or our success. Or our failures.
I can beat myself up for getting laid off at a prior job because the owner lost funding. But the fact is, nothing at all I could have done at that job, no matter how good I was or how well I negotiated, would have stopped me from being laid off.
When I woke up in the hospital when I was 26 and told I had an immune disorder that would require me to be on life-sustaining drugs the rest of my life, well, there was nothing I could have done to prevent that, either. “Genetics,” they told me. “Bad roll. Sorry.”
And when God’s War was dropped by its first publisher, well, again – it didn’t matter how good (or not) the book was, or how well I wrote it or how well I championed it. Due the circumstances of how it was acquired and the crashing economy, the book was dropped. It wasn’t personal, and had very little to do with me or how well I did or didn’t write it .
Bad things happen. Unfortunate things happen. We like to say there’s a reason for it, because if you work so hard for something and don’t get it, there’s a big part of you that wants to say, “For fuck’s sake, is this really worth it?” And if all of us did that, we’d just sit on a log somewhere until we got eaten by scavengers. “What’s the point?” is the first question on the road to your downfall.
Because, let’s be honest. Sometimes you do work hard, and stuff works out, yeah. And sometimes you don’t and stuff works out anyway, but it happens less often. So even though there are plenty of times we work hard and we fail, we hear about that less. We just keep hearing the same mantra. “Just do good. Work hard. You’ll get everything you want.” When really, what they mean is DEAR GOD KEEP GOING OR YOU WILL GET EATEN BY SCAVENGERS.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m working too hard, if I need to work smarter. And then I start to go around in these circles like, “What if I wrote Vampire YA instead?” or “What if I gave up novel writing and focused on being an executive?” or “What if I flew to Mars?”
And then I think about what the hell my definition of success really is. When my parents or grandparents said, “Work hard and you’ll succeed” they probably meant “You’ll have a roof over your head and not go hungry,” not “You’ll be debt free and have an iPad and a new car that doesn’t require constant maintenance.” My definition of success is staggeringly out of whack with what came before. I market all day, so I know this definition is all fake. It’s made up to sell things, and that’s cool, but in order for me to live sanely in this world, I need to figure out my own definition of success.
And my own definition of failure.
Because one of the truths I’ve learned over the years is this:
Failure happens. To everybody. All that separates the people who achieve things and the people who don’t is whether or not they get up again. And whether or not they’re hit by a bus before they give up the final time.
Life isn’t what’s done to you. It’s what you do with what’s done to you.
When I lost that job, I thought I was done for. But some very fortuitous circumstances combined with some very kind and gracious colleagues and referrals, and I was back in the game again, and onto a succession of better jobs that I have excelled at.
Some people who get my immune disorder get so fucking mad at the world that they just fuck everything away because, “There’s no point and I’m going to die anyway.” But instead, after a year of my own wallowing angst, I decided to re-prioritize my life and figure out how to be a better person with the 15 fewer years I’ve got on everyone else.
And, yanno, God’s War getting dumped didn’t keep it from being an internationally award-winning novel (ha ha, boo-yah, I can TOTALLY SAY THAT NOW!).
I hate failure. I hate setback. I hate feeling like I’m not in control of anything. But there are two ways to handle it. Freak out and tell the world to fuck off while getting eaten by scavengers, or suck it up, move forward, and formulate plans for how to work around it, work through it, work past it.
Because unless you get hit by a bus, life goes on.
That, at least, I’m pretty certain about.