Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What's It Like?* (*the noncompetitive life, that is)

Yesterday I was e-mailing an associate when I came out with the thought: You know, I spend more than half my waking hours teetering on one edge of rejection or the other. What do people's lives look like who don't compete for anything? Would I even know how to live a life like that? And it started me thinking. Especially since I sang an audition last night and didn’t get the solo. Not that I haven’t been through this gut-wrenching experience before. Heck, if I’ve been through it once, I’ve been through it dozens of times. It’s part and parcel of a business like music…or writing. But at what point do you say enough is enough and stop trying so hard? Or is it ever a good idea to stop? And then what does your life look like when you do? I have to confess: I don’t know what that kind of life would look like anymore. I’m not even sure I can wrap my mind around it, because I have lived my whole life, in one sense, on the edge. No, I don’t do daredevil stunts (well, okay, I like rollercoasters)…I don’t spend 18 hours in an operating room fixing things that other people consider incurable…I didn’t embed myself in a war zone to be on the “front lines” of any particular battle. In short, in a way, I don’t “do” anything dangerous. But in a bigger sense, “dangerous” has many forms. Emotionally, I’ve been in a danger zone for most of my life. Some of that wasn’t of my own making…but in the realm of competitive professional “chances” I continue to take—it is. I put myself on the line on a regular basis, doing two things most people will never do: I sing in public, and I submit writing for publication. And the great majority of the time, those to whom I am submitting or auditioning for a “step up” say NO. There are gigs where you have an assured route to success in both of those endeavors, of course. If you go to journalism school, and you’re reasonably coherent, you will probably be able to latch onto some small newspaper, broadcast outlet, or (now) a web site, and work your way up the “ranks” in the field. Sometimes, with a few breaks, the jobs start coming looking for you; that’s the best place to be. Same goes for music…to a point. You go to a good school, you study with good teachers (this kind of element is much more important in music than in journalism, from what I’ve seen), you sing or perform with certain performing bodies…and you get a gig. Or two. Or a dozen. And then, once again, the gigs come looking for you. There’s also a difference between wanting to be a success at something and wanting to be the BEST. Wanting to stand out. To be a star. And, with the amount of talent I’ve been given, I feel I owe it to God, to myself, and to the world, to get to darn near that last level. Not worldwide fame, necessarily—but substantial achievement. From whom much is given, much will be required. But in both the fields of singing, which I am in, and novel writing, which I’m also in, the gigs that come looking for you are way fewer and farther between…and stardom is almost statistically impossible. Yet I feel I have to try to get there. And that’s what turns this into agony at times. That’s what makes one wake up, look in the mirror, and say, “What in the world am I doing to myself?” You see, sometimes, you do everything right, and the right things still don’t happen. Or they happen in small ways, but you never “get over the hump” and get the Big Success. You keep giving yourself pep talks, you keep trying, you keep chanting to yourself that it’s a “numbers game,” and the odds will eventually be in your favor… …but this goes on for years. Then decades. And the odds never change. You never quite get to that real success, as you’ve defined it. You never get to that point where you feel you “should” be, where you “ought to” be, where you’ll have given all you have and “the universe” will have rewarded it. Then what do you do? When is it time to step off the edge? To back away from it? To stop deliberately putting yourself through those highs and lows? Some people say if you’re in the highs and lows in the first place, you’re going at the thing wrong. That it truly is, simply, numbers. Or it’s “who you know” (or, in the case of music, more likely “who knows you”). Or it’s dependent on things you can’t possibly control (which it is), so just keep showing up. But when does “showing up” become an embarrassment to you and to others? What’s the point at which people stop admiring your persistence, and just wish you’d go away? When have you moved from “persistent” to pathetic? I, for one, am tired of moving through life with a figurative hat in my hand. “Please, sir, may I have some more?” I’m tired of trying to act “professional” and cool as my heart gets broken…again. I’m starting to wonder if I’m fooling myself about the level of talent I actually possess. But most of all, I’m scared. Scared on one hand that if I stop, I’ll have come up the proverbial “one step short” and “just miss it.” Most of us have had that drilled into our skulls so much that it’s part of our marrow now. We can’t quit, even if we’re tempted to, because we’re haunted by the image of stopping just short of the pot of gold. And I’m scared on the other hand that reality, and age, will finally catch up with me…and I’ll run out of “one more steps” to take. In the case of singing, your body’s ability to produce beautiful sound DOES eventually take a hit. If you have excellent training, which I did, that hit doesn’t have to happen too early. But it does happen. It will happen. Even I had excellent training a little late in life. So my breaking point may come that much earlier. On the writing front, obviously, the same physical limitations don’t apply. But once again, the rigors of repeated trying and failing take their toll on one’s creative spirit. Eventually, one starts to go from “wow, this is a great idea” to “well, maybe it’ll fly.” The passion leaves. The fire is gone, and you lack the flint to start it up again. I’m starting to wonder if my breaking point, in both areas, is coming already. Or has come, and no one’s had the heart to tell me. And if I’m moving into that “pathetic” realm, and just don’t know it. The feedback I’m getting on the quality of what I do—in both worlds—doesn’t say so. But the gigs I’m not getting are telling a different story. The question is…what do I do if I stop competing? What becomes of my talent? Have I let everyone in the world, including God, down? What’s next? Ideas? Janny


Deb said...

Yanno, I've wondered from submission #1 whether I could actually write. The first "no" I got was a nice "no", and it encouraged me. If it had been a snotty "no" (I've had some of those since, and they just honk me off), I'm not sure I would have continued to submit writing to publishers.

Write, yes. I've always written for myself. Trouble is, I'm not even doing that now because I can't get ride of the plodding mindset and reacquire the fire.

I probably shouldn't write anything 'til I find the flint and steel. But striving is a hard habit to get past.

It's trite. It's useless to say to someone for whom excelling has been a way of life -- we all get discouraged. And you're right --there's no middle way. You can't control the marketplace. And it changes probably moment-by-moment. We can't discern all its fits and starts. And without sending our precious scribblings off, we'll never know what mood that market is in at the moment. There's no middle ground.

Yeah, we can write and not submit, but if the fire is banked, what's there?


Donna Alice said...

Beautifully written and it's given me a lot of thoughtful moments since I've read it. Just lately, I've had some "breaks" coming my way in the writing department. I have expectations of BIG THINGS happening soon.
But, like you, I often wonder--what would it be like to be "normal?" To not live for that check in the mail, or that yes on a book or the next contest, next story or article that's going to be the BIG one! What would it be like to just live and not think how to put it all into writing?

That's usually what scares me--not in losing the ability or running out of time--but the fact of what would I do if I didn't write? Who am I without that? It's been such a part of who I am for so long, I can't imagine not striving for just one more sentence, more more paragraph, one more idea to send out.

And like you I do wonder when you say enough is enough? I've been believing for God to send a spouse into my life for years. I want children of my own--probably adopted at this stage of the game. I'm not ready yet to say, okay, I've believed long enough, I'm done. To my way of thinking, If I don't quit, it's going to happen some day soon. If I do quit, then, there is what you mentioned--the falling one step short. What if I quit right BEFORE the dream begins?

Maybe it's like everything else in life---just keep taking one step at a time and keep on striving. Your writing has blessed me and I'm sure there are others.

Keep going!!!

Donna Alice said...

Had to add one more thing--a quote I came across awhile back.

No one but you believes you can write. If you quit, all you've done is make it unanimous.

Janny said...

Well, unanimity is something I've rarely experienced, so maybe I'll give it a try, yanno? :-)

Just kidding! Don't hit me yet!

Thanks for the kind words. I have no idea how many people have been blessed by my writing, although a lot of people have stopped by, seen one page and run screaming away (or at least a stay of less than a minute, according to my site tracker, would lead you to believe something like that!)...a few people stay, a few people actually write back. I may need to jazz this thing up a bit and pull in more traffic, eh?

(No, I'm not Canadian, but I always said "eh" until someone asked about it in a manuscript!)


The Koala Bear Writer said...

Janny, I haven't been here for a while, but I realized while reading this post why I like your blog... you make me think! You ask big questions.

I haven't faced a lot of rejection yet. I'm a young writer, so far writing mostly for myself and because I can't not write, and I'm trying to get my writing out there. Part of me is scared of that rejection, of deciding that nobody likes me so I should give up.

It would be easy if we could just write for ourselves and didn't care what anybody else thought. But I want to write for others, to have them touched by my writing, to have them respond. My fiance doesn't understand that; he rarely writes, and when he does, it's for a specific person or group. So when I talk about marketing my work, trying to reach more people, he just shrugs. Why, he wonders.

Why, indeed, do we keep trying, when it is as hard as you describe it? Something drives us on to write. The only thing I can say is that we never know how many people we have touched. So we keep writing. Throwing it out there. Getting discouraged. Going on. Maybe someday we'll see the big picture and how our little efforts fit into it... how much we did when we thought we were doing nothing or getting nowhere.