Saturday, February 6, 2016

Meditations on Ducks

At almost every place I've been employed, we've had seminars or team building or training, and someone always brings up ducks.  It's that whole thing about how ducks are so cool and calm on top of the water, gliding gracefully, while under the water they are furiously paddling just to stay afloat.  The message always seemed to be this:  be like a duck.  Don't let anyone see you working; make it all look easy.

This message never sat particularly well with me for the following reason:  what if some duck just learning how to swim jumped in and drowned?  I mean, what if the other ducks seriously did not tell this poor creature that life is work, and most things worth having are hard to earn and you have to paddle?  That duck would die or live a life where they thought everything came super easy for everyone else and they just sucked because they had to paddle.  That's duck abuse.  Why not tell the other ducks it's okay, working hard is worth it?  Why not let everyone  know you work hard?  I mean, don't go around whining about it, but share your paddle stories so no one jumps into the water with unrealistic expectations.

So this is my paddle story.  It started many moons ago when I decided I wanted to be a writer and a few people told me that I could because they saw something in my work.  I had a few moderate successes in high school, then when I finished college I started submitting poetry.  It was published. Well, the first six poems were.  Everything I thought I knew was confirmed:  I was talented enough to be a writer.

The next several submission responses landed on me like atom bombs.  All rejections.  Sad enough, but that isn't the saddest part.  The saddest part is that I quit.  Sure I kept writing for over a decade without finishing or submitting a thing.  But I quit trying to be a published writer because I truly believed my talent alone was enough, and when I was proven wrong by those rejection letters, I caved.  In college I studied writers whose work was so profound that the idea of them having to work through rejection never occurred to me.  Paddle, you say?  Well, none of the really good ones look like they paddle.

It's not that I was afraid to work.  I started working when I was 17 and put myself through college as a car hop and a bank teller.  I've been a teacher and a bank trainer and a million things in between, and I truly enjoy facing challenges and figuring out how to solve problems.  It's just that somehow I naively divorced art from work.  If you're an artist, a true artist, I thought you should be able to get by on talent and that working hard wouldn't help you.  You'd just work yourself into a ton of rejections.  Best to quit when it was obvious you didn't have the talent.

Fast forward to now.  I'm 36, which to many might seem a bit old to still be chasing that writing dream I started having as a teen.  However, I am a pro at taking rejection.  I have children who ask for items just so they can wait for me to hand them the item and then throw it back in my face.  Plus, I now understand the concept of work vs. talent.  Very few people are extremely, insanely, genius-level talented at a skill.  There are some, but most successful people combine some moderate talent in a given area to a crap load of work.  That's okay.  They paddle hard, and they keep paddling even after they've been dunked.  They do hard, challenging, scary things.

This realization allowed me to start submitting again last August, resulting in a couple of publications at the end of last year.  That's fun, but let me talk to you about the paddling:  I got rejected a ton.  I have a color coded spread sheet showing my acceptances and rejections, and it almost bleeds the color of rejection.  But this time I kept going.  Why?  I actually like to write.  I like to get published as well, and I'm not going to lie about that.  But when the rejections come in, I'm okay with sitting down and paddling for hours until I revise and rework, create stronger images, strengthen syntax.  I do not expect this life to be a glide across smooth waters.  I've seen the underside of that water and it's furious with the kicks of people who keep going.

A duck, working it.

After two days in January where I received rejection letters back-to-back after my kids had been sick for a week, I started thinking about those ducks.  Those two rejections hitting in such close proximity during a time when I was already exhausted stung.  But I sat down and kept going.  I thought very little about the four pending pieces I had floating in the world because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to move forward if I focused on what it would feel like to get rejected again so soon.  So I worked.  I paddled.  I created.  And a week later, I received an email from Mamalode saying they wanted to publish "The Other Baby".

"Be sure to promote your work!"  they advised, to make sure it was out there where it could be seen.  And I'm happy to do that, excited to do that, but with that I feel comes the responsibility to tell you a secret:  I paddle.  Hard work is a better response than giving up, but it is hard.  I know that if I refuse to risk rejection I will never receive acceptance, and I love what I do enough to want to do it for the sake of the joy it brings.  So don't let the ducks fool you; it's not an easy life, but it's a pretty great one.

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