Last night, I spent an hour trying to find a word. Not because I’m having cognitive issues or because I’m being exceptionally picky. I was doing my Spanish homework. The professor gave us a definition for a word in the story we had read, and wanted us to find the word to go with the definition.
I understood the definition. I thought I understood every word in that story. Could I find the word she wanted? Hell, no. As you can tell, I’m still a bit frustrated by this.
And midway through that frustrating and ultimately futile search, I heard myself think, I’m 60 years old. Why am I putting myself through this?
That thought came up a lot yesterday. I’ve revamped my system so that I’m pushing myself in a couple of areas. I have set deadlines that I could have easily met once before in my life, but haven’t strived to do in years, partly because I had been so ill for so long. (See the recent post titled “Deadlines.”) I had gotten into the habit of thinking I can’t or I can only instead of why not try?
2021 has become the year for me to try. I’m working on revamping my thinking in a variety of areas, from what I’m capable of to what I want to do. It’s a whole different way of approaching life, one I haven’t had the ability to do for nearly thirty years.
And still, I have days like yesterday, where I’m butting up against some kind of internal expectation. Or maybe I was just tired.
I sure understand now why so many adults want to coast. I could do so. I could let my professor give me a pass on a number of things, from my dyslexia to my lack of time. But I’m the one who chose to take the class as a student, not audit it, and I’m the anal doofus who still wants to get good grades, even though I know (at some point in some class) a good grade won’t be possible.
Hence the striving. The hour spent on a single word when I could have been doing something—anything—else.
After I finished everything else in the homework, I stomped from my office back to the condo, and grumpily wondered what the point was.
And…because I’ve trained my subconscious to answer questions like that…I woke up with the response this morning, running through my head like a melody.
President John F. Kennedy’s voice repeated over and over and over again, using a phrase I’d only heard in videos of the time (not live when it happened).
We do these things, the voice in my head said, slightly misquoting, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Oh, grump. That’s exactly right. I am taking another language because I’ve always wanted to, and it is hard, especially at my age. It also takes time, which I perpetually feel like I don’t have.
A friend of mine went back to school for his M.F.A a few years back (required to do so for a job he needed to get) and he cut every single corner he could. He got dual credit for the work he was doing as work and also for class. I suppose I could do that, in a variety of areas, if I wanted to.
I don’t want to. We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
I realized that’s kind of my mantra for life itself. I get very frustrated when a writing student of mine or a writer friend of mine complains that writing is “hard.” I get even more frustrated when they get angry and want to quit after a rejection.
Yes, of course, writing is hard. It’s an international profession. It takes a high level of skill in a lot of areas. It also takes a work ethic and perseverance.
What frustrates me, though, are the people who believe that they are entitled to sales. That means this: when they self-publish a book, it “needs” to sell a lot of copies. When they finish a story and mail it to a major market, they are failures if the story doesn’t sell.
Okay. Whatever excuse you want. Because those are excuses. Excuses to quit.
And what went through my head yesterday were excuses. It was hard. Why was I doing this? Why am I ramping things up? I really can just coast.
Frankly, I can’t imagine anything more dull than coasting. I know people my age and older who coast, who’ve retired and spend their days shopping or going to the golf course or watching TV. People who feel they deserve to rest after a lifetime of work.
That’s their choice, and it’s one I do not understand, so I won’t opine on it. I do have a low boredom threshold, though, so the idea of spending all day every day watching TV or shopping or golfing or even reading simply makes no sense to me.
This afternoon, I looked up the Kennedy quote so I could use JFK’s exact words. Then I read the excerpt on the site I linked to below, and realized that my subconscious was even tougher on me than I had initially understood.
We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Kennedy was trying to get Americans behind the Apollo program which would send astronauts to the Moon, which seemed like a weird pipe dream at the time.
(Sidebar: this to me is what government is all about, particularly American government, not the stupid nightmare of the past four years, and not the obstructionism by the Republican Party in the previous eight. This is what makes me write historical fiction, and makes me happy, when I see someone in government (or hell, in industry), actually reaching for the stars. Sometimes literally. Sometimes figuratively. But reaching. Striving. Moving beyond ourselves.)
So, let me unpack that little quote, as it pertains to me and my new schedule, and to many of you as you work inside your careers as professional writers.
We already discussed the easy/hard dichotomy. So the next part: because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.
Yeah. I’ve had to change habits in the past year, as I take Spanish, just to organize my life. I’ve had to change habits in the past year, because of COVID. This year, I’m organizing and measuring, but I had forgotten that last part of the sentence which is the best of our energies and skills.
I’m having to call on most of my energy and all of my skill to reach the goals I’m setting. I know I will fail at times. I also know that life or the universe or something will get in the way, just like it did on one of my goals today.
I was supposed to run this morning, but we had rain and snow in Las Vegas in the past 24 hours (yes, some of you are seeing this about four weeks after I wrote it), and so I couldn’t do my usual mileage. It wasn’t safe. And I can’t go to the gym yet. So I walked, rather grumpily, as you might imagine, until I realized just how much I enjoyed the crisp cold air and the different vistas provided by the added white stuff.
The best of our energies and skill doesn’t mean that we are the best. It means we give it our all, that we try harder, that we are giving our best, even if it falls short.
Told you that my subconscious was laying into me this morning. I did give it my best. That dang word was there (I’ve had class now), but I didn’t find it, after searching as best I could. I’m learning more tools every day, and next year, I suspect, a search like that won’t be as hard.
Next: because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept. Yeah, already did that. I did my schedules. I signed up for classes. I promised things. I accepted the challenge, and I hate backing out of a challenge. I’ve had to do that in the past due to my health. My health is better. I don’t want to back out of anything. In the past, I had to because I simply couldn’t do something. Now, I know what I can and cannot do. I accept challenges within the realm of possibility (a basketball dunking challenge with a regulation basket is simply not something I can will myself to do, no matter how hard I try), and I give them my best.
Add to that: one we are unwilling to postpone.
Yeah. Postponed too much in the past 20 years. Not doing that anymore. That’s part of being older too. Postponing often becomes a euphemism for giving up. Because at some point, we all run out of time.
Finally: , and one which we intend to win.
Kennedy was talking about being the first to the Moon, a real product of the times. If you haven’t read the history of that period, you should, just for the frustrations and inspirations built into the space race.
I don’t really intend to win anything. But I do intend to achieve my goals, even if they are difficult.
Really, that’s what I’ve been balking at in the past two days. I hit “hard” yesterday. I couldn’t figure something out. I could have asked for help, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to figure it out myself.
I’m doing a lot of things, now and in the near future, where I’m not even close to the smartest person in the room. Nor am I the most learned. I don’t need Spanish to survive. I don’t need it for my degree. I don’t need it to get a job after I graduate.
I want to take it, and frankly, it’s already helping my writing. We’re reading a lot of great short shorts and they do things with language not possible in English. Which makes me wonder: what can English do that other languages can’t? Which sets the brain going. Which inspires me.
I had a choice when I hit “hard,” though. Actually, I had three choices. I could do my best and be satisfied with that. I could do something half-assed, and acknowledge that was what I had done. Or I could quit.
I was whining, so I was thinking of quitting. Half-assed is not an option for me. It’s either go big or go home, as the song says. I need to give what I do 100% of my attention and focus and abilities, whenever I do it.
Which is why I have so little patience with the writerly whiners. If you don’t want to learn how to handle your profession, then find a new profession. Because half-assed doesn’t cut it for me. Either give it your all—even when it’s hard—or do something else.
Yeah, most of us hate failing. (Those who don’t hate failing aren’t in major professions.) But failure is an important part of success. If you take rejection personally, then that’s an issue you need to resolve to stay in this profession. If you believe that you are a failure if your book doesn’t sell one million copies within a month of release, then you have issues that have nothing to do with your writing.
Harlan Ellison once told me and Dean that the problems in your writing (and writing career) are the problems in your life. The two are inseparable. That means, sometimes, that in order to solve one of your writing problems, you need to tackle something about your life.
Sometimes that means changing how you do things (even when the change is difficult). If you can’t make the proper changes, you might have a mental or emotional block. Getting help—either in the form of a life coach or therapy—might be in order. I’ve done that. It made my life better. It helped me cope with some things that would have held my writing back and it has improved my life overall.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t sometimes have issues. I often have issues. I just have the tools to resolve some of them now.
The writing business has changed since I came into it forty-plus years ago. Most of the things I learned about the business no longer apply.
One of the most important things to learn is, in fact, how to be agile, how to change with the times, and how to educate yourself in new things.
Successful writers now—and as far as I can see into the future—need to learn several things.
They need to learn the craft of storytelling.
They need to learn how to publish their work, including everything from how to assemble paper- and e-books to how to design a cover (even if they don’t design covers most of the time).
They need to learn how to market their work.
They need to learn how to keep growing and learning in all of those areas.
All while keeping their expectations in line and maintaining joy in what they do.
Sometimes we all get bogged down in the details, and the details can derail us.
Did that word matter in today’s class? Naw, not really. Not from the perspective of the teacher and the other students. That word might or might not show up on next week’s quiz, and if it doesn’t and I don’t get it, it’ll be one whole point off out of a hundred.
However, that search for the word, and my failure, led to a change in my study habits. I thought I had translated all of the words I didn’t know in that day’s reading—and I had. But I hadn’t gone far enough. Words, as we all know, can have multiple meanings or meanings that vary from country to country.
I need to expand how I look at words in Spanish, not just for the simple one-size-fits-all definition, but for the more subtle how-does-it-fit-into-what’s-before-me definition.
So I failed. And I learned something. And that was cool.
And yes, it was hard. Just like writing is hard. Just like challenges can be hard.
I always find value in doing the hard thing. That’s my bent. I suspect most long-term successful professional writers would say the same thing. Not the one-hit wonders or even people who have had short careers. Because you can have short-term success. Lightning does strike.
But lightning rarely strikes more than once. And it’s what writers (and business people and other successful folk) do after the power of that one strike has faded that’s truly important.
Careers are made up of easy moments (rarely) and hard moments (much of the time). We need to take our pleasure in the effort, not in the result.
And yes, sometimes the effort is frustrating. Sometimes it feels impossible. And that is often where the joy is—or at least, where the learning is.
We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
If you had told me nearly eleven years ago now that I would have blogged weekly on the publishing and writing business, I would have laughed at you. “Why would I waste my time doing that?” I would have asked. I couldn’t see the value then, but I learned what the value was as I did it, week in and week out.
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“Business Musings: Because They Are Hard,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog © Can Stock Photo / VAC.