The Snark Zone: Letters From the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming
I’m contemplating articling interviews and the inevitable silly questions: What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Of course, I can think of a half-dozen real weaknesses without blinking, but who blurts out a real weakness in an interview?
The person who doesn’t get hired, that’s who. This is why it’s a dumb question. The asker doesn’t really want to know the answer. It’s a trick to see how you will handle it.
Meh. I’m tired of games. Ask me what you really want to know.
Anyhow, I still haven’t decided what I’ll say beyond the trite: “I’m a perfectionist. Really!” Except in my case, it’s not just a stock answer, it’s true. And it really can be a liability. The reason I kiss deadlines on a regular basis has as much to do with perfectionism as procrastination. Which is not to say that I’m actually perfect. That’s not what perfectionism is about. It’s about trying to attain perfection. Which, although it may be possible on a one-off, is not possible on a regular basis. Knowing that doesn’t make a difference to a perfectionist, though.
I’ve said in the past that you can separate writers crudely into two groups. The first are the ones who agonize over every word and persist in hanging onto the belief that everything they write sucks, even when they know logically that it doesn’t, and to whom the act of submitting is the equivalent to writing a 100% final exam, it’s just that hard. Afterward, they’re constantly thinking: Did I pass? Did I pass? The second, of course, are the ones who experience no such angst. They write prolifically and think it’s all great, even though their first (and only) drafts are riddled with grammatical errors. Maybe they know the errors are there; maybe they don’t. If they do, they have confidence that someone else will take care of them—that their brilliance will so overwhelm anyone reading that he or she will have no choice but to see past any mistakes, no matter how egregious.
The first group are generally (I said generally. No hate mail, please.) better writers than the second. But I bet if you did a survey, you’d find the second group gets published more often. The reason is simple. Writers in the second group feel no compunctions about submitting. And if you submit often enough, eventually someone’s bound to take notice. Maybe someone will even clean up your grammar for you, or fill in a plot hole. You never know. Best-selling authors are not usually the best writers. They may be good; they may be competent. But usually not the best. The best are holed up somewhere, hoarding their writing like its pirate’s gold—treasure so beautiful it will blind you with its perfection if you dare to look upon it. At least, that’s what we’d like to think. It keeps us from having to confront the reality: that even the best suffer from crises of confidence.
That’s the thing about angsty writers; success doesn’t take the angst away. They savor their victories for approximately four seconds before the chill hits: what if it was a fluke? And then they’re off, on another futile quest for perfection.
What angsty writers—what I—lack is audacity. Prolific writers have audacity in spades.
Audacity is a willingness to take risks. Not risks in the sense of danger, but in the sense of chances of success. An angsty writer will have no problem doing something terribly dangerous, but only if their chances of success are good. The prolific writer, on the other hand, doesn’t flirt with danger, but risks failure on a daily basis. Success calculations aren’t even a consideration.
Audacious is the person who enters a marathon without properly training for it, knowing that she will have to walk the majority, if not all, of the way, if she is to finish, and not knowing, if in fact she will finish, because she’s never gone anywhere near that far before. Audacity will take her over the finish line, albeit bedraggled and limping, hours after everyone else has finished and the volunteers are jonesing to go home. And audacity will allow her to wear her “finisher” T-shirt while beaming with pride and informing everyone: I did a marathon!
Well, I suppose. Technically. But call me crazy, walking 26.2 miles does not make one a marathoner. I could go out and walk a marathon today. So what? A marathon is not a walk; it’s a run. The point is to run the distance, or at least the majority of it. And if I couldn’t do that, if I didn’t know I could do that before I entered, I wouldn’t do it. I sure as hell couldn’t wear a “finisher” shirt knowing I’d walked the entire way. I wouldn’t be proud; I’d be embarrassed.
But I lack audacity. Plenty of people do just that, and are proud, and get kudos galore showered upon them. How many times have you heard “Congratulations, you’re all winners!”? Maybe I am crazy. It’s true there is something to be said for simply finishing a task, no matter how unpretty the journey is. In writing, finishing is at least half the battle. The question is, is it enough?
Lack of audacity is not the same as a lack of self-esteem. Angsty writers know they are competent; but to them, competent is not good enough. It’s fine for other people, but not for them. Angsty writers are always harder on themselves than anyone else. The why of this is mixed up with pride and expectations.
A friend from law school just finished her BA. She completed her last year concurrently with her first two years of law after getting early admission. Last week she threw a party and invited friends, family, former co-workers. Everyone was so excited for her. I mean, really, truly excited. And proud. I marveled at it. It was so genuine and so obvious.
The spring I graduated from university, my mom also graduated. She’d gone back to school to finish her degree the year after I started. My SO graduated with his master’s degree. And my brother graduated high school. If that wasn’t occasion for a party, I don’t know what was. But there was no party. I tried to work up some excitement, but nothing ever materialized.
My second university degree, I don’t think I even got a card. I had to buy myself a present.
At the time, I don’t remember thinking anything of it. I was so used to subdued reactions, that it didn’t strike me as odd. But now, with my writing eyes wide open, I’m looking around and I wonder. This is not how other people react. Other people celebrate. They’re proud. They’re excited.
I don’t mean to say that my family didn’t give a shit whether I graduated or not. Quite the contrary. But at some point—and this happened pretty early in my case—achievement went from being an accomplishment to being an expectation.
It was expected that I would do well in school. It was expected that I would go to university. If I hadn’t— well, that would have been a failure. But to do so was not viewed necessarily a success, it just was. Almost as if there was no other option.
And I think that is a great deal of the reason why I lack audacity. Why I’m wary of risks. Why I won’t try something unless I know I have a very good chance of succeeding.
I pulled out my old journal yesterday, the one I wrote in when I was in junior high. And you can see it there: I consistently reported my grades, but I was never, ever proud of how I did in the subjects that came easily, the ones I always got As in: English and math. What I desperately wanted to do well in was PE, the only class I struggled to not get a C in.
I was never able to enjoy my successes because I was constantly chagrined by my perceived failures. Not good enough! Try harder! You have no idea how many hours I spent in the basement trying to stand on my head. Over and over, until the skin started sloughing off my scalp in huge papery flakes.
The thing is, I wasn’t a failure. The failures were the kids who always complained of sprained ankles or cramps or forgotten gymstrip, who never even bothered to try.
I remember one day in 8th grade PE we were sent out on a 5 mile run. There were about 60 kids all told, 30 boys and 30 girls. I remember finishing with plenty of time to get cleaned up and changed and even sit around for a while afterward, so I probably took somewhere around 45 minutes, which sounds plausible. I was 7th to finish, behind 5 boys and 1 girl, and I was so proud of myself. More kids came in afterward, before the bell, but what I remember is that so many kids didn’t finish before the class ended that the gym teachers had to take a pick-up truck and drive around the course and pick them up. Of course, most of them weren’t even making an effort; “run” meant “walk very, very slowly” or possibly even “sneak into the bushes and smoke as soon as you lose sight of the school.” But whatever. I was exhilarated.
What happened to that?
I don’t know. I still ended up getting a C in PE because my teacher, the sadist, had me nailed as a C student and that was that. It’s true I sucked at anything requiring speed or coordination. But to be able to run 5 miles in about 45 minutes—that’s decent. It’s not Olympian, but it’s decent. Someone could have least have said, good job, keep it up, unlike a lot of this schlock we’re teaching you, it’ll serve you for life. But I don’t remember that occurring.
At any rate, by the time I finished high school, I’d stopped running. I’d started having knee issues. I dislocated my kneecap, and my knees started making grinding noises. I thought running would only aggravate the situation, and no one really disabused me of the notion.
I didn’t start running again until two years ago. In a last desperate attempt to find something that “worked,” I threw caution—and my knees—to the wind and started to run. The key to my sticking to it was intervals. At first I only ran one minute, then walked one minute. At first it was hard. And then it wasn’t so much. And then it started to be—shock—enjoyable. And it worked. I finally stopped feeling like I was on the losing end of a battle with a couch potato. And my knees? Well, they’re just fine. Still noisy, but fine.
This past weekend I entered a 5K “fun run.” It was the first time I’d gone in an organized run since elementary school. It had taken me two years to get to the point where I felt comfortable running with other people. I entered pretty much the shortest event out there. No marathons my first time out. Maybe never. But I did okay. I ran all the way and came within 22 seconds of my goal time, which is not bad for a first try.
But I knew that I could run the distance, and I knew pretty much how long it would take before I entered. Or else I wouldn’t have done it. The unknown was how I would measure up. I finished right in the middle of the pack. To use law school lingo: top 55% overall, top 39% of the women.
Audacious? Well, no, not really. About as audacious as waiting to apply to law school until after I’d found out my LSAT mark. But I am re-learning what it feels like to be proud of oneself for accomplishing something, instead of merely relieved to have avoided failure.
Then again, accomplishing something that wasn’t expected? Yeah, that’s maybe just a little bit audacious. And I don’t just mean the run.
I guess I’ll have to re-think my answer to that interview question.