A few weeks ago, the best thing that has ever happened in my life happened to me: I sold my book. To a publisher I joked about to my nearest and dearest towards the end of the proposal process in the same way I might joke about going out on a date with, I don’t know, George Clooney.
That is to say, something that would be totally awesome if it happened, but is so awesome that you don’t ever actually expect it to happen.
Fortunately, I am sufficiently prone to vocalising my anxiety that most people I’m friends with were fully aware of exactly how much work went into getting to that point. But from an outsider’s perspective, I’m conscious that it might have looked like something that happened as if by magic. Like George Clooney (let’s just go with the celebrity analogy here) happened to stumble upon this blog, or heard about the project I was working on, called me up and said, “Rachel Hills, you are amazing. Please may I publish your book?”
But, no. That is not how it happened at all.
I want to point this out because I think that we creative-slash-thinky types are often seduced by the idea that if we’re good enough – sufficiently pithy, sufficiently talented, if our ideas are the “best” – people will pick up on that and reward us accordingly. A record company exec will hear us singing to ourselves at the mall and sign us up. An editor will stumble across our blog and ask us to write a column for them. We’ll write a thesis so groundbreaking that it won’t just enter the academic lexicon; it’ll become part of popular culture to boot.
And sometimes that does happen, I guess. But most of the time, getting what you want – especially if “what you want” is something really juicy – means pulling out all stops. And for most people (for me, at least) pulling out all stops requires being honest about what you want.
It means standing up and acknowledging – at least to yourself, if not to other people – “hey, I really want that juicy thing and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”
I bring this up because – and it’s the whole reason I’m writing this post, really – I feel like it’s somewhat uncool to admit that you want juicy things, or at least that you want them in a way that would see you actively go after them.
I don’t know if it’s a “woman thing”, an “Australian thing”, a belief that if talent is innate then trying is crass, or something else entirely. But what I do know is that if you deny your ambitions; if you hold back or downsize them or just hope that they’ll come true without you having to do anything much, they won’t come true. You’re short changing yourself.
It can be scary to want big things. It puts you at risk of failure, for one: writing a great book, making a great record, creating a product that genuinely serves a need, running that activist campaign that actually succeeds in changing public policy or opinion are hard things to achieve. It also tends to take longer than we’d like - it can feel like chipping away at a mountain with a small hammer.
It can also make you feel like an egotist: who are you to deserve to want something juicy?
I felt kind of preposterous wanting to sell my book not in the country where I was known (Australia), but in a country where I was as good as unknown (the United States) – but where I thought my ideas would have the best chance of travelling. I was well aware that my plans may not work out.
Many people along the way told me as much: that I was fighting an uphill battle, that as a non-American author I would have to work twice as hard to get my book picked up, that it would be a difficult sell. And all along the way, I had to fight my ego and desire for affirmation; that part of me that was tired of training (that is, writing) and wanted to play ball (that is, get the damn thing published), just so I could say that I had and I could.
As it happened, it wasn’t a difficult sell: in part, because I was fortunate enough to land an agent whose hopes for my book were as grand as my own, and who knew editors who felt similarly. But also because I’d put in the ground work to get her - learning the field, perfecting my ideas, filling the holes, rewriting and rewriting, asking people who knew what they were doing for advice.
Maybe all this is moot. I haven’t, after all, written the book of my dream yet. There are still many more parts of the mountain to be chipped away, many more places in which I could go wrong (or just not get it quite right). I have to finish writing the thing, for one. Then there’s the relentless promotion you have to do in order to get people to read it. And even then, I can’t guarantee it will connect with people.
She who tries doesn’t always “win”: chance, timing, privilege and learning the system all play their role - often a big one. But you’ve got a hell of better chance of achieving the things you dream of if you own up to your dreams and go after them, than if you just sit back and hope things will work out for the best.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Steve Jobs, via Sarah Wilson:
Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
Elsewhere: On failure and the contradiction of beauty (The Beheld)
Making your writing a success: advice from John Gray (Time to Write)
Poke life and something will always pop out the other side (Sarah Wilson)