Monday, September 10, 2012

Keep on keepin' on

"Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all." - Dale Carnegie

There are times in everyone's life--everyone who seeks to achieve, anyway--when the smart thing to do is to give up and move to another endeavor.  As Mr. Carnegie points out above, those are the times when you really have to look deep inside.  Are you quitting something that really has no hope, or are you quitting something because it's easier to do so than it is to continue pressing toward your goal, useless though the effort may seem? 

Take writing, for example.  Creating a novel takes months, and all you have while you're doing it is a dream of things to come.  "I'm writing a book" has nearly become a punch line rather than a statement, and that's really no surprise because the challenges involved in creating a literary object that large are quite nearly impossible.  You reach a point where there's really just no hope that you're going to finish it.  But you'll find that if you press on, suddenly--poof, it's done.

Then the really hard part begins.  There are two paths to go down, one involving attempting to beg, cajole, and/or wheedle your way into a traditional publisher's lineup, and another involving publishing it yourself.  Door number two is deceptive, as just past it are a whole lot of learning curves you must climb before you can relax and sit to watch nobody buy your book.  Still, I think most people turn to the first option--well, first.  It's easier, or at least it seems so, to pour your heart and soul into a single-page letter and send it to people who very likely will never, ever respond, than it is to beat your head against the concepts involved in formatting and designing and self-publishing.  And the simple brutal truth is that most first-time authors who get a yes, which is a small percentage of the whole, get it on, say, the 60th attempt (with The Help) or later.

Sixty attempts!  And yet The Help won several awards.  And then there's the tragic story of John Kennedy Toole, who wrote a couple of novels that were rejected over and over.  Famously, he decided it wasn't worth trying any longer and ended his own life.  His mother, though, was unconvinced and kept trying--for ten years.  Finally the novel came to the attention of the right person, and A Confederacy of Dunces was published.  It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Then there's the Path B that I mentioned earlier--self-publishing.  All rosy and yes-filled, right?  Nope.  At first, nobody but your immediate family wants to buy your book, and most of them probably aren't going to read it anyway.  So you keep trying and trying, and you continue watching the sales figures stay very small.  Some people get lucky, just like some people win the lottery, but most people end up watching this multi-month project sit and fester in Amazon's shelf-graveyard.  There are some successes, granted, among self-published authors, but they're the ones who understand that it takes time, and it takes patience.  Konrath reports that it took him twenty years.  Twenty years!  You have to march boldly right up to the point where any sane person would quit, and then keep on marching.  

Writers aren't the only ones who have to do that.  Many, if not most, successful entrepreneurs have similar stories to share, regardless of the industry they're in.  The founding father of the college where I got my start in academia, in fact, told the story several times of having to cover payroll from his own retirement account.  And that's not that unusual.  Any sane person would've quit, but they didn't.  They kept at it.

And that's the secret.  When you feel like it's time to quit, that just might be life's way of seeing if you're really devoted to it, and when you don't quit you become one of the people Carnegie was talking about.


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