When I was 8 years old, there was nothing I wanted more than the board game, OPERATION. It just looked so fun, with the tweezers and tiny organs, and the wonderfully startling BZZZZZZZ! that would happen when you made a mistake. I truly thought, that if I only had OPERATION, my life would be complete. On Christmas morning, I was thrilled to wake up and find it underneath the tree in all its red-nosed, anatomically-incorrect, naked-man glory. It only took a couple of times playing it to realize that it was much harder than it looked. Only the steadiest of hands could grab that miniature wishbone. And don’t get me started on the writer’s cramp. Impossible! The buzzing that looked so funny on the commercials quickly became annoying and tiresome. And, let’s be honest…a little bit hazardous! Were those actual electric shocks making my fingers tingle?
When we’re little, we really do believe that if we just have this one thing, life will be perfect. In Jenny Offill’s sweet picture book, SPARKY, she writes brilliantly of a child’s desire for a pet. The main character wants a pet, ANY pet, so badly that she’s willing to agree to anything. So when her mom promises that she can have one, as long as it “doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed,” this little girl is determined to find one that fits the bill. And she does. Sparky the sloth arrives by Express Mail, but isn’t quite the pet the girl expected him to be.
Let’s be honest, sometimes the reality of the writing life is disappointing. And like OPERATION, or SPARKY, sometimes I wonder if the dream of being a writer is actually better than the reality. We dream of finishing a novel, and when we do we are elated! Until we read the novel we wrote and realize that it is 179 edits away from being ready. We dream of landing an agent, so we query like crazy with the 180th version of our manuscript, only to be faced with complete radio silence. We dream of publication, but the rejections stack up and tip over and we become annoyed, and tired, and start to wonder…is this really worth it? When faced with the reality of the life of a writer, what happens to us?
When SPARKY first arrives, the little girl tries to get him to do the things she thinks a pet should. She tries to get him to roll over or speak. She tries to play fetch with him. Her friend Mary arrives, looks down her nose at SPARKY, and tells the girl that HER pets can dance and do all kinds of tricks. And it makes the little girl wonder if maybe SPARKY is not such a great pet after all.
These are the sorts of things I am susceptible to in the writing community. I look at the journeys of other writers and wonder what is wrong with me. Why does my path curve left instead of right? When I’m doing that, I can’t even look around and enjoy the scenery on my road because I’m so busy craning my neck to see what I might be missing on the other side. And instead of accepting that my path is different, I want to try to make it fit the way I think it “should” go. Like the little girl in SPARKY, I can’t always see my sloth for what he is and accept him in all of his glorious sloth-i-ness, because I am too preoccupied with trying to make him act like Mary’s pet bird!
Let me tell you a story. I am writing my first novel. Up until now, I’ve only written picture books. But I’m writing a middle grade novel and have no real training, other than being in the kidlit world and reading lots of books. So I wrote the first draft and got stuck, having no idea how to start editing. So I thought, I KNOW, I’ll read something awesome. So I picked up CIRCUS MIRANDUS by Cassie Beasley and absolutely adored it. But you know what happened? It paralyzed me. It was so magical, and lovely, and beautifully written, that I put down my own work and said, “Why bother?” Anything I write will never be as wonderful as this. I can’t write like this! So you know what I did? I took a break and went back to picture books. I wrote a new picture book. I polished it up, I sent it out. I found the joy. And now, I am back to my middle grade novel. Because I have realized that I am not Cassie Beasley, and the things I write are nothing like CIRCUS MIRANDUS. And that is okay. Because I am Amy Dixon, and I accept myself in all my glorious Amy-Dixon-ous-ness.
So. All of that to say, my writing and submitting friends…embrace the reality of YOUR path, whatever it may be. Just because the writing life is difficult, doesn’t mean we have to toss it into the back of the closet with the board games that weren’t that fun. The disappointment may be a part of the reality, but so is the joy. There’s joy when we write a really good scene, even if we’re the only ones reading it. There’s joy when we get the slightest bit of positive feedback from an agent or editor. And there’s joy in celebrating success with one another in this community, even when it’s not ours. Find the joy!