(Wow. That really didn’t rhyme at all. Sorry.)
I seem to spend a lot of time explaining things to my older son that are actually lessons that I need to learn for myself, or that I’ve learned only recently. This means that either I never learned them as a child, or I did, and it took another twenty years for the lessons to stick. I’d like to blame the former, but let’s be honest: I can be a bit dense. I have no one to blame but myself.
Yesterday’s (attempted) lesson involved something we’ve talked about here before: This tendency that I and many others have to expect our first efforts to be spectacular. Oh, sure, we understand that other people need to practice a lot before they’re good at something, but there’s something in each of us (human nature, or perhaps a heavy focus on self-esteem building in our youth) that makes us think that we are special. We might think we’ll be able to learn to play guitar remarkably quickly, and do it exceptionally well, or that (in my son’s case) we’ll be able to draw things well just because we want to. Sure, Stephen King was writing short stories and novels for most of his life before he sold a novel, but we think that the first thing we write will be brilliant and sell a million copies and make us rich and famous and…
Sure, we say modestly, it will need a bit of editing, but the world will love it when it’s ready. We read (repeatedly, if we’re doing our research) that most books by new authors, no matter how they’re published, sell a disappointing number of copies. They don’t make a splash, don’t earn out their advance, don’t break even on what the author spent on editors and cover designers… but we still think we, individually, going to be the next J.K. Rowling/Stephanie Meyer/Insert Big-Time Debut Author Here.
And kids, it just ain’t so. It’s a fun dream, but as goals go, it… well, it sucks harder than the first draft of a first story.
This is a hard lesson to learn for some of us, but not learning it comes with serious consequences:
- We don’t do the work. It’s like an actor sitting around waiting to be “discovered” rather than putting the necessary hours into learning and failure and experience. It’s happened before, but it’s a terrible game plan.
- We’re unwilling to try new things, because we know we won’t be “naturals.”
- If we do try, we give up as soon as things get tough, or as soon as we realize that this work isn’t as perfect as we expected it to be…
- …or as soon as someone criticizes our liberal use of triple exclamation points in our Historical Romance,
or the fact that the cat’s leg in our painting looks like a furry penis.
- In fact, it makes it damned hard to take any criticism at all.
And we need that to grow. We need to be able to fall down and scrape our knees and know that this has nothing to do with us being special snowflakes or not; it just means that there’s more to learn, and there’s no shame in that.
This can be exciting! I’ve discovered that there’s freedom in saying “Yes, I need help,” and finding that there are people willing to offer it. There’s freedom in understanding that this is freaking hard on so many levels, but there’s no shame in trying to improve, and there’s freedom in knowing that you don’t have to be the best of the best to contribute something to the world, whether it’s stories or sculptures or sermons or songs (or photos or recipes or lemonade, or other less-alliterative things).
It’s actually funny that my son and I were talking about this yesterday (Me: “They say it takes 10,000 hours to master anything*.” Him: “Wow. That’s more than two days.”). I wasn’t going to do a blog post about it, but this morning I opened a Weekly Inspiration e-mail from Life Manifestos, entitled “Yes, You Suck– Now Get Over It.” I recommend clicking on over there to take a look. It’s exactly what Simon and I (and now you and I) had been talking about: learning that we’re not the prodigies, naturals, or Mary-Sues** we dream we are, but going out there and doing it anyway.
This is why NaNoWriMo was and is so important to me. It’s not about being the best on your first shot. It’s about getting out there and doing the work that needs to be done before you can be great. It’s about not waiting for perfect inspiration or perfect skill to materialize out of thin air or to develop on its own, with no work or input from us. It’s about enjoying the journey, gaining a support group of people who are learning these same lessons, and having a ton of fun even as we work through the frustrations of revising, editing, maybe even publication… and then doing it all over again, knowing that it only gets better.
I hope my son will learn this lesson more quickly than his mom did. I don’t want him wrestling with perfectionism and insta-discouragement*** and thinking that everything he does should be amazing right away. I hope he’ll be open to improvement instead of being hurt by criticism like I was for so long. I hope he’ll learn to be willing to work and to put in something beyond the bare minimum (as this is a huge issue for him right now).
As for me… I’ve got to get back to work.
*No, I haven’t read Outliers yet, but it’s on the list.
**Come on, in our dreams we’re all that girl/guy who’s good at everything, the genius who everybody wants…
***Just add water!