Thirteen minutes ago, I got the news that somebody had looked at my hard-won, beloved brainchild and said no. Again.
I’m talking about my first novel, completed seventeen months ago after five near-impossible years, and then reluctantly self-published as an ebook this year to predictably poor success. Last month, I decided in a last-ditch effort to not let it die that I would enter it for an award for unpublished/self-published children’s novels. An extremely competitive award; one I barely stood a chance of winning. I knew this. I knew it the way I know the chances that Liam Hemsworth will knock on my front door today and tell me fate brought him here.
And I just found out I didn’t make the longlist, which is something I thought I was prepared for. Oh, how silly of me. If you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket and then mentally spent all of your winnings before finding out that you have inevitably been suckered, then you’ll know how this type of thing happens. Only – replace ‘buying a lottery ticket’ with pouring your heart and soul into something, and baring everything you have for it to potentially be tossed aside with the consideration of all but a moment; even to be loathed, pitied, ridiculed by people who know better than you. And replace ‘mentally spending your winnings’ with grappling to hold down your crippled, floundering self-belief. Because, when you stop lying to yourself, you know that you don’t buy the ticket unless a small part of you thinks you might win.
It’s so, so painful. It feels like the kind of humiliation you think only happens in a bad dream, when you get to school and discover you’re naked. It feels like being six inches tall. Because it’s not just one rejection, it’s the most recent of dozens, and each one represents a plethora of compelling reasons why I should just give up, and a set of questions I’m screaming in my head: At what point does perseverance become wishful thinking? At what point does an effort to be resilient make you blind? Am I, maybe, just plain not good enough?
And the most difficult to get my head around: if someone told me, categorically and without a shred of doubt, convinced me that my work was bad, would I even feel any differently about it? The slow decay of my hopes for my first novel has been like a drawn-out breakup, or even a kind of mourning. I know I need to let it go and move on, and to degrees I have. But my pride in that novel doesn’t come from knowing it’s good, it comes only from knowing that I wrote the absolute best story that I could at the time. Watching it die is a real heartbreak, but one I’ll recover from eventually. But days like today make me question how much more I can take. What will happen if my next novel suffers the same fate? How much worse will the blows be in ten years? Twenty years? When do I quit?
Under the swelling and bruises is this odd little masochist of a woman. She’s stubborn. She’s grown a thick skin because she knew what she was getting herself into and she is, in fact, oddly joyful. This is the stuff success is made of, after all. Every time it gets harder, I get to prove to myself that I’m up to the challenge – and even if I spend the rest of my life getting knocked back like this, knowing I’m that kind of person is truly success enough. Today I realised that self-belief isn’t effected by rejection, it’s effected by what you do next, and mine’s been battered by thirteen minutes (turned two hours) of wallowing, which is quite enough. Now to nurse it back to health.
It is often said that a sound predictor of unhappiness is having expectations life fails to fulfil. And sure, that makes sense. It holds a lot of wisdom about gratitude and finding fulfilment in what you have, and warns against the dangers of modelling your life after anything from a Disney movie or Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The truth is, I put a lot of the self-doubt and despondency that feeds my depression down to the fact I’m scrambling after difficult to obtain things. But something about the idea doesn’t sit right with me and I’ve been thinking about why.
I haven’t quite worked it out yet. Expectation is an abstruse and unattractive fella. He is hope’s even more optimistic brother. His head’s not fastened on. He can be unreasonable. He’s no good at contingency plans. He never stops to count his blessings. At least these are the things I imagine when I hear the word ‘expectation’. But both brothers are after something they don’t have. Both are prone to disappointment.
I definitely have hopes. I hope to be successful as a writer. I hope to be critically well-received. I hope to touch people. I expect that these things are possibilities, not eventualities, and this is where lines blur and your dreams risk becoming nightmares.
The thing is, I don’t believe happiness and wanting more are mutually exclusive. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I’m in the conflicting camp of clichés which tell us goals give us something to live for. But they’re not everything. You have a real life, and real blessings, and happiness isn’t something the things you think you want will give you.
I’m at risk of paraphrasing Miley Cyrus here but fuck it, this post is basically ‘The Climb’ minus the throaty southern twang. Enjoy the journey, is what I’m trying to say. When you reach the top, the only way is down, and I think maybe this is how people with too many expectations find themselves unfulfilled. They forget to take in the scenery (somebody please stop me).
If you asked me whether I would trade my big dreams and pesky ambition for the contentment of already being where I want to be, I would say no. My problem isn’t my ambition, it’s something else; something I’m still looking for, and hell if I know how it sits snug against my big dreams like happy little yin and yang buddies, but I really, truly believe that it does.
So I say go ahead, aim higher, as long as you remember it ain’t about how fast you get there, or whatever.