If I could name one thing I’d be proud to have as my epitaph, "He never stopped challenging himself" is a pretty good candidate. This applies in most areas of life, not just writing. Whether I will have succeeded is not for me to judge, as the essence of continual challenge is not getting hung up on either success or failure. In any case, a recent blog post by J.C. Hutchins has really gotten me thinking about how hard it is to avoid taking the easy way out.
I almost always agree with what J.C. has to say. He is motivated, articulate, reasonable, and from what I know of him a genuinely nice guy. His recent post, The Three Abatrosses of Podcast Fiction has a lot that I agree with and some that I don’t.
I posted a comment, and he was gracious enough to respond. I think we still disagree about some things, but I quickly let go of that and started thinking about what lessons I might learn from his words. Many years ago, a very wise woman taught me the value of not always focusing on being critical, which is a tendency I’ve fought all my life. That goes for being critical of myself and of others. It’s too easy to miss out on opportunities when one is subconsciously looking for reasons not to take them. And I have found that I even need to go beyond that.
I have found that the most valuable learnings tend to come from disagreements.
I’m not talking about massive differences like we see in politics or religion, though I’m certain there is always some value in trying to place oneself in someone else’s shoes. No, I’m talking about how honest disagreement can lead to growth, and to what Thoreau called the examined life.
One of the things I pointed out was that coming up with new and creative ways to promote your work is a talent, just as writing is a talent. Certainly one can work at improving it, but some of us will always be better at it than others. J.C. did not agree with this. After I resisted the urge to respond to defend my position again, I thought some more about it. What I realized is that even if I am right (and I can admit that it is possible I am not), it’s an irrelevant point. We all have to make the efforts we can, regardless of limitations.
As soon as I realized that, I remembered making the argument to others in years past in the context of running. Guys I know who were among the top runners in the United States would complain that the Kenyans who were and still are winning everything have a natural advantage. Incidentally, you can imagine how charged a discussion that could become. In any case, I’d tell them it didn’t matter even if that were true, because unless they were planning on hanging it up, they needed to focus on the things they could control. When I realized that I was making essentially the same misguided kind of argument to J.C. that they had made to me, I felt kind of ashamed.
But I am glad that I persisted rather than just sticking with "agree to disagree" on this issue. And I’ve thought some more about why I had the reaction I did. The reason is fairly obvious and it doesn’t make me proud: I think of myself as someone who has no natural talent whatsoever for creative solutions. I’m about as left-brained as it gets. My only creative outlets are writing well and playing the guitar poorly. I try to think of something new and innovative to promote my books and. . .nothing.
As so often happens, lessons don’t tend to be isolated. When I think back on what I did after the launch of New World Orders in 2008, I realize that I did try a couple of at least somewhat different and new things. What I remember most is that they were utter failures. Or so I thought, until I read the March 29 blog post by Jeremy Robinson, How should I market my book.
Jeremy gives some good tips, and he makes the same general point that J.C. Hutchins made, that innovation is the key more than exactly what you do. I agree with this point 100%. But the thing that really struck me in light of my musings is his description of a marketing attempt that didn’t go as well as expected. I am not someone who puts authors on a pedestal just because they’ve sold some books or had some success. But I have to admit that I am surprised that someone with an established platform and audience got so little response to a promotion.
It drives home a point that J.C. Hutchins made, which has obviously been far too easy for me to forget. Trying something new and having it not work is not the same thing as failure. In fact, not trying something new because it might not work is much more of a failure. I’d even go so far to say that sometimes I have been guilty of not trying anything, new or otherwise, because I wasn’t sure it would work. There are many overused phrases about failing many times before eventually succeeding, and there is a reason why they are overused: because it is so much easier to give up.
I haven’t forgotten the title of this post, "Don’t let yourself off the hook." Beyond the specific takeaways that I have discussed is the larger question of how to stave off the inevitable attacks by doubts. After all, I already knew all the things that I outlined in this post as learnings. But I forgot or ignored them, and if history is any judge, it will happen again. And that’s where not letting myself off the hook comes in.
When I allowed myself to question my reaction to J.C.’s post, I wasn’t letting myself off the hook. When I realized that I was using a questionable form of analysis to avoid my own insecurity on these topics, I wasn’t letting myself off the hook. And going forward, when I decide what things do differently, I need to not let myself off the hook. Perhaps for some people this comes naturally, but for most of us I know it requires constant effort and vigilance.
The proof will be in my actions of course. When I release a podcast and a novella this summer, I am once again going to have to not let myself off the hook.