Monday, June 20, 2011

Fortune's Wheel

I can’t help but wonder if whoever designed the Ferris wheel (that would be Ferris, I’m assuming) was after a cheap, momentary thrill or if he was inspired by Fortune’s Wheel of the tarot, intentionally trying to create a carnival ride that would encapsulate life’s ups and downs.
For the truth is, we all have them—or will have them if you’re one of the fortunate few who have yet to experience any downward travels. And Fortune’s Wheel is starkly evident in the publishing world. No one is exempt. And truthfully, a person should consider themselves lucky if they don’t get Towered a time or two along the way.
We are all of us on this hairy, exhilarating ride, but, we are all on different points on the wheel. Some are going up, others coming down, and still others hanging in the air for that long, glorious moment when they are on top of the world.
Of course, people are more likely to talk about their ride UP, that thrilling ascent as they are on the rise, cresting when they reach the top and hover—sometimes for minutes, sometimes for seemingly ever.
But eventually the wheel turns. The problem is, most people keep that particular part of their ride private, not wanting to share that long hard descent with anyone. We don’t like to talk about that fall, whether it is a gentle, controlled descent or a rapid, breath-taking plummet.
The important thing to remember is that the wheel may not turn where we can see it. The descent will not necessarily be in a person’s public professional life, or perhaps they spent their early years in one big downward slide, and we will only get to see their upward trajectory. But just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. In fact, sometimes we won’t see the downward direction because they adjust course before it becomes apparent to others.
Part of that is the nature of the business. Our success is heavily seeded in the smoke and mirror nature of publishing; the desire to create the illusion that everyone wants/loves your book so that in turn, others will love/want it, too.
But another factor is simply human nature. We don’t like to talk about our failures or mistakes. We are a society that places a huge premium on success and wealth and happiness. The downturn of Life’s Wheel threatens all of those, and so we keep silent. Which in turn only further fosters a shame over the ups and downs of life that often can’t be prevented.
Lately however, a few brave souls have been speaking out on the downsides of a publishing career, the heartbreak, the rejection, the financial uncertainty, the sheer lack of control authors have, the envy that slips in, even when we don't want it to. The reality check that provides is a really, really good thing.
In fact, I have come to believe that that is the true value of networking; connecting with enough people and being around them often enough that you get to hear them share their real story, not the marketing hype, but the slog behind the appearance of overnight success, the number of times they had to get back up and start over again, the hugely trumpeted success that never materializes. You get to be there to hear their war stories and share their battle scars. Most writers will tell you that these battle scars are a rite of passage; they are simply part of the writing life. 

When my oldest son graduated from college last year and I asked him what he thought was the most important lesson he got out of his college experience. He thought for a moment, then said: “That everyone has their own sh!t. Everyone has bad stuff they have to deal with, even if you don’t see it."
I feel the same way about publishing.
How many times have we all heard that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to other writers? Other careers? And yet, I’ve always wondered how you don’t compare, how can you prevent it when all the numbers and markers and metrics are broadcast everywhere, from deal announcements, to sales numbers, to blog and Twitter followers, bestsellers lists and FB fans. How do you NOT see all that stuff?
And then I realized that Don’t Compare is really shorthand for, Don’t let envy erode your own path to success. That is easier for me to get my arms around. The truth is, if we talk with enough people who are honest about their own situations, it becomes apparent that there isn’t nearly as much to envy as we think there is.*
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met or talked with high profile publishing successes who have lousy sales numbers, who are terrified of not earning out their big advance, who’ve become NYT bestsellers only to find their creative control over their own work evaporate, or dry up with the pressure to make the list again, who are expected to travel, often months on time, leaving small children behind, or who have waited years between sales, or whose second book tanked in a hugely public, painful way.
Once we know that stuff, the behind the scenes of huge successes, we see the painful trade offs that are sometimes made. That in turn gives us a better understanding of what is to be envied in our own situation, whether it is complete and utter creative freedom, low sales expectations and the lack of pressure that accompanies that, the six rabid fans who are always there to rave about our newest project, a handful of supportive indies who hand sell us like crazy, the reviewers who love us, or the opportunity to completely recreate ourselves when we go up in flames.

*(Conversely, neither is there a good reason for gloating. Even if your career appears to be Golden and Charmed, it is best enjoyed with a healthy dollop of humility, fueled by either the knowledge that fortunes’ wheel does have something to do with it, or the idea that that wheel will turn eventually, and your landing will be much softer if you have a cushion of humility on which to land.)


Jenny Woolf said...

Your son sounds like a wise young man!

tanita davis said...

Robin, I think you should repost this about every six months. Comparing creeps up on us in small ways, just in a "Wait! Mine was like that, so why didn't I...?" type of way, and before we know it, we're back in the saddle. EVERYONE has their own, mess, correct, and for everyone, the wheel turns... I like that. It's a reality check + hope infusion.

Anonymous said...

Oh Robin,
How much did I need to read this this morning and reread it every morning. Thank you.

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

In my first years of writing I used to refer to getting published as this GINORMOUS brick wall to scale - and I kept giving myself a concussion when I repeatedly banged my head against it. A Ferris wheel is a much better metaphor because there are ups and downs no matter where you're at in the process - and there will be for the rest of your writing life and career. :-)

Jennifer Jackson said...

Since poetry isn't as in-demand as fiction, it is easier on some levels to not have jealousy find you.
So many of us will never be known.

Gerri L said...

* After so many years of more downs than ups your post boosted my spirits, Robin. I've always felt that so many people have certain expectations of me, especially since I had a great high, with almost getting a book published, that dissolved into disappointment. Thus, I've shrunk back from staying in touch with those who have had success, thinking that I wasn't really worthy of their company. Your encouraging words has made all the difference to me. Thank you. By the way, this site has enabled me to face my fears, as well as give me hope in going on with my writing, no matter what.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Jenny, I thought that was a worthwhile takeaway from a liberal arts degree!

Tanita, I totally agree about the comparison creep! And reality check/hope infusion was exactly the balance I was aiming for, so thank you!

Thank you, Susan! It was one of the posts I was less certain of, so it's always so rewarding to learn that someone needed to hear just that very thing!

Kimberly, plus Ferris wheels are much less painful than brick walls!

That's a really interesting point, Jennifer, about certain areas and genres just not being subject to that sort of comparison.

Wow, Gerri! Your comment totally made my week. Maybe even my month! I cannot even express how happy I am that the site has helped you in that way! It is so hard to remember that our work is not what makes us worthy or not. I have fought that a lot, still do sometimes.

Aimee said...

This was just the reminder I needed to get things back in perspective. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Another great post that came at just the right time. I can tell myself not to compare all day, but come on...who can resist? Like your son said...I have my own sh!t.
But the idea of instead thinking to not "let envy erode my own path to success" is indeed an easier mandate. a little healthy spark of competitiveness isn't a bad thing, whereas the souring of the soul that is envy is an entirely different animal. Thanks for this.

Sarah said...

Thanks for this post. My own two college kids have had to grapple with "facebook-induced" envy as well, and thank goodness they are learning to see through the social media facade. When I first started blogging several years ago, pre-FB, twitter, etc., it seemed like people were more "real", though perhaps people also veered more often toward the over-sharing, not fully comprehending the wide reach of the web. I guess the challenge for writers is how to stay true to our own creative process at the center of the wheel, as we ride the highs and lows of public life.

liz said...

Sarah, that's a really interesting comment, and I think it is true. All the social media does make the successes more visible, I think, and it's hard to remember that everyone has their own 'downward turn' at some point.

Great post as usual Robin - thank you.

Adele Richards said...

My kids were playing the game 'Snakes and Ladders' recently and it struck me how true to life it is. Sometimes you seem to just keep going up and up the ladders...and then you hit an enormous snake and wind up right back where you started.

I agree that it helps to know that this is normal in life and in writing!

Carleen Brice said...

Very, very well said!

Christina said...

A writer friend shared this link this morning and I've bookmarked it for the next time I feel like I'm the only one with sh!t (sorry, but I love that quote!) My first book came out in May and while it's been wonderful and fulfilling in many ways, it's been eye-opening and scary in others. It helps to remind myself to be grateful on a daily basis, but the biggest boon to me has been to start the next book. No matter what this biz might do to my confidence, when I'm working on this first draft I'm reminded that this writing gig is truly a gift. No one is telling me it needs to be revised (yet), no one is telling me it'll never sell (yet). It's just me and the characters and the world I'm creating, and that's pretty awesome (a definite up on the Ferris wheel!)

Thanks for this thoughtful post.

Lisa Pliscou said...

Wise, thoughtful, and eminently helpful. Bravo!