Rats and writers

Jennifer Crusie on how to survive your publishing career–be a rat with an island:

They–it’s always “they”–got two tanks of water which they colored with milk so that the water was opaque. In one tank they put an island just under the surface; the other tank was islandless. Then they dropped rats into the tanks. In the tank with the island, the rats eventually found a place to stand that kept their heads above water even though they couldn’t see it. In the other tank, there was no island and all the rats sank (whereupon they were rescued by lab technicians). The next day it was back in the tank for everybody with one big difference: neither tank had an island. And what they learned was that the rats that had found an island the day before swam twice as long as the rats that had sunk the day before. They were all in the same boat, well, tank, but the rats that believed there was an island lasted twice as long… their perception was that they were okay, that there was an island some place, damn it, and they were going to reach it.

I got lucky with my writing: I sold the first story I sent out, flawed as it was. I’ve had my fair share of struggling since then, but because of that first sale, I’ve always known in a very concrete way: there was an island there once, and I know it’s still out there, and that I’ll find it again, if only I keep swimming.

Yet Crusie’s point–which I agree with–is that it doesn’t matter whether your island has been made concrete. What matters is that on some level, somewhere, somehow, you believe there’s an island out there, whether you’ve ever seen it or not. If only you can win this simple-yet-incredibly-difficult confidence game, you can keep going.

And if you win that game, and yet the island never shows up?

So you’re building your island based on unrealistic dreams and convictions made of thin air. What’s the worst that can happen? You never get published or the book of your heart tanks, and you never reach your goal, but at the end of your life you look back and say, “I had a dream and I fought for it, I believed in myself and my work, and I never, ever gave up.” That’s a life well lived, folks, a helluva lot better than, “I had a dream but it wasn’t realistic so I quit and watched television.”

(Link by way of writerjob.)

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