For a lot of my life, I was fortunate enough to be one of those kids who got praised for ability. I sailed through academics from kindergarten to high school, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get into any university I applied to. Even through undergrad, I never struggled to maintain a straight-A GPA.
Which meant I never learned the most important lesson of all: how to fail productively.
That’s not to say I never failed; I did — a lot — just at things that weren’t keystones of my self-image. I was unathletic and terrible at sports. I failed the third level of Red Cross swimming lessons plenty of times before my parents took pity on me and let me take a break. When I did make school sports teams, it was only because I went to a private religious school where they needed every willing and able body they could get.
And though I got excluded from a few parties, I never cared enough about them to make it sting. (In fact, I remember being more relieved than upset that a classmate invited everyone but me to a bar mitzvah party — my parents and friends were more hurt on my behalf.) Sometimes, I tripped over the line between humour and cruelty and hurt my friends’ feelings, but never badly enough to dissolve our relationships or, I hope, to injure them significantly. Nobody asked me out in high school, but I didn’t really want to be asked out, so it didn’t bother me. Sure, I wrote an angsty poem or two at thirteen, but who doesn’t?
I did learn that familiar theatre-nerd pang of not getting cast in the part I wanted, but I still seemed to get cast in most of what I tried out for, despite having so many talented classmates. I lost games and got low adjudications in competition, but it never threatened my idea of who I was as a person. I remember one classmate joking that everything I touched turned to gold, and I was proud of the personal record that prompted her to say so.
Even in the area so integral to my self-image, writing, rejections didn’t pierce deep. I was only a kid, and I didn’t know anyone who’d been published. Sure, I’d get jealous of lightning-strikes teen authors like Christopher Paolini. And I obviously would have been happier (then) if editors and agents liked my (awful) submissions, but polite rejection slips didn’t make me feel like I’d never be a writer. I had plenty of time to get MSs out there.
So I didn’t learn how to deal with rejection, not getting something I really wanted and felt I needed and deserved (even if I knew better), until I was an adult.
When I hit my thirties, suddenly it was no longer amazing that I’d written a bunch of novel-length stories. It felt more… pathetic that I’d done so without getting (I felt) any closer to publication. And, right or wrong, I felt like twenty or so years of effort without any book publication credits to show for it meant that I’d be a dilettante forever. Like time was rapidly running out.
I know that’s not true. I know that I spent a lot of those years not putting my work out there, or concentrating on other aspects of my life. It took me way too long to realize that I didn’t have to be a tenured scholar before I was allowed to dedicate myself to what I actually care about.
And I know that every fish who swims after something they are good at will eventually reach the pond where they aren’t the biggest anymore.
If you like writing, the better you are, the better writers and editors you’ll meet and read and talk to. If you’re good at school, eventually you’ll get to a level where the only people who hung around are the people at least as dedicated and proficient as you. If you’re good enough to be a star in the house league, you get moved to a competitive league where the average player is way more skilled.
The better you become at anything, the sooner you’ll get to a level where you encounter other people who are good too. Which means that the better you become, the harder it gets to see rejection as anything but a personal failure. Because you’re surrounded by peers, you see lots of others in your field succeeding. Which is actually good! Because if the people “on your level” are great, you are probably great too.
But it sure doesn’t feel that way sometimes. If the only way you know to judge yourself is to compare your achievements to others, competitively, others’ successes make the distance between what you hoped you’d achieve and what you did yawn wider.
Strange as it may sound, shonen anime about fighting teams like Naruto* and One Piece (or even Pokémon!) made the importance of this type of framing clear to me.
Even a casual anime fan like me can notice that despite the protagonists’ stated high goals — Naruto wants to become Hokage, Luffy wants to be the King of the Pirates, and Ash wants to be the very best like no one ever was — they’re still deep-down delighted to lose hard battles. That’s because their ambitions are an expression of what they really love: being a ninja, piracy, and training Pokémon, respectively. They don’t love those things because they need to in order to succeed; they need to succeed in them because they love them so much.
That means that losing a battle is something to get excited about. It means you got to tangle with someone amazing at the thing you love, which means your own skills are at a level close to theirs. And it also means that there is room for you to train harder, get even better, do more of that thing that defines you because you love it so much.
That’s not to say that they don’t and we shouldn’t feel sad. It would be nicest to breeze through the trials, win every battle easily. It’s hard to get over the personal blow of finding out you weren’t as good as you’d hoped. Egos are fragile things.
And, in real life, it’s okay to feel sad about the work you put into something you have to leave behind to move forward. I know I grieve for every character I have to abandon because their story isn’t working. I’ve lived with them for years, and they express parts of myself I’m sharing for the first time. Feeling like I have to fold them back inside once I’ve spread them out can be a bitter pill (if not exactly an entirely accurate one) to swallow.
But I try not to grieve for the optimism I had in an MS’s chances to reach other people or the “lost” time I put into a project. I don’t need to look hard to see how much I’ve learned with every MS I’ve written, even the terrible ones when I was just starting out. Heck, I look back on the earlier entries on this blog, sometimes so recent as a year ago, and I think, “Wow, it didn’t feel like it through the process, but I’ve grown a lot since then.”
Instead of being Miss Havisham, perpetually mourning what I could have been, blaming all the parts of my life I can’t control on other people’s success or those who disagree with me, I want to be like a certain Leaf Village ninja. Who gets upset at setbacks and jealous of talent, but who, at the end of the day, is more motivated to get better than to “win.”
(… Rock Lee**, obvs. Who did you think?)