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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Wednesday 25 September 2019

What is Failure?

I should have been Greta Thunberg. 

At least, that's what part of my brain insists. As if to prove that dystopian YA novels actually have more to them than adults have given them credit for, the young woman has slowly risen to great acclaim and celebration. It's well-deserved, and other young activists - Autumn Peltier, Mari Copeny, aka "Little Miss Flint," Xiye Batista,  Isra Hirsi, and before them, Severn Suzuki - have been getting a wonderfully encouraging following. From working to get water flowing to Flint and the First Nations people in Canada who have been neglected by our government, to focusing on the disproportionate effects the climate crisis is having and will have on people of colour and the poor across the globe, these youths are making a real difference.

And in the face of that, it's hard not to feel like a failure.

After all, if a passionate speech and obsessive, driven action is all it takes, why haven't I, for instance, managed to do the same thing? From the perspective of a Gen Y looking at Gen Z and their beautiful ferocity and drive for life, it's hard not to feel as though time is passing sooner than ever and that one is, perhaps, being left behind.

But believing this not only undercuts one's ability to do things in the future, it also goes against simple statistics.

The prodigy fallacy 

When I was younger - a teenager, in fact - I read the book Eragon by Christopher Paolini, as well as The Prophecy of the Stones, by Flavia Bujor. I was absolutely convinced that if I didn't publish my first novel before the age of eighteen, I might as well throw my publishing career in the trash. What could possibly exist after the age of eighteen?

Of course, after a few years, I went back and reexamined the Inheritance Quartet, and found that the books were uneven, rambling, and badly lacking in originality. Bujor's book was even worse.

What I realised was that a book released before it's been carefully edited and checked for quality issues will be a bad book, and furthermore, that youth alone is no pedigree of quality. It ties into the talent myth - the idea that creativity and other skills come from some mythical source, rather than practice, persistence, and study. As with many things, we have the Romans to blame for the idea of "genius" as a sort of spirit that blesses creative endeavours and one's life in general.

Perhaps of more concern is the fact that neither Paolini - whose parents, incidentally, just happened to have a publishing company of their own - nor Bujor have released a title since their series and debuts respectively.

Early success seems like the goal, but in addition to the fact that it's a statistical anomaly at the best of times, it may not betoken future achievements.

Leadership isn't everything

In culture, we have a tendency to focus on the spearheads of movements rather than, say, the rank and file. It goes along with the whole talent myth - tied to the idea of the auteur, as explored above. Although it's admittedly easier to memorize one name for the history books than say, twenty, it's fundamentally inaccurate. Furthermore, the fewer people are involved with something, whether it's a creative work or a political movement, the worse it tends to be.

A book often appears to be the work of a single person - even though an editor or editors, beta readers, cover artist, publisher, fact-checker, research assistant, friends, family, and other people may be involved in its creation or supporting the author. In contrast, a stage play requires the technical crew, costume designers or makers, actors, the director, ushers, and even the administration of the theatre or performing space in order to go forward.

Although plays and books tend to pin their success on a single force, neither of them can exist without others' contributions. And when they do tend to be one-man shows, the quality often suffers proportionally.

Greta and these other wonderful kids wouldn't be leaders if they didn't have people following them. There's absolutely nothing wrong with contributing to the success of others, and supporting or participating in their efforts. It's not less heroic to fail at life's lottery.

Furthermore,  the lottery doesn't have a start and end date. One's moment may still come in the future - or later on in life. There's a reason why most successful people achieve their status well into their forties, or even later; the simple fact of accumulated wisdom and knowledge. Of course, that sets aside other factors, like privilege and mental health issues. Although awareness of the statistics is an important element, it also doesn't hurt to just keep a sense of proportion. Success is generally a marathon, not a sprint. Sure, some people get their lightning moment - but slow growth is steady, more successful, and ultimately, more reliable.

What comes next? 

The most hopeful thing about not achieving early success is the simple lack of pressure for a perfect follow-up. Whether it's an album or a movie, living up to the hype of one's first successful effort can be an absolute nightmare. Even then, if one moves on to other creative projects, fans may clamour for something new. In the political sphere, early achievements may dwarf later career progress, or tint everything with the poison of comparison.

So, while Greta and this girl gang is awesome, they're going to have a lot to live up to - and meanwhile, for the rest of us who haven't done something that big, supporting those efforts and trying to push forward ecologically-responsible or creatively ambitious projects is the most important thing. Very few people get famous or make a big impact, but even fewer people who focus on fame itself achieve that status.

Do what you're doing to the best of your abilities. Don't get lost in envy or covetousness. Neither of those will bring results. Rather, use them to motivate yourself - and keep going forward.

Michelle Browne is a sci fi/fantasy writer and editor. She lives in Lethbridge, AB with her partner-in-crime and Max the cat. Her days revolve around freelance editing, knitting, jewelry, and learning too much. She is currently working on other people's manuscripts, the next books in her series, and drinking as much tea as humanly possible.

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