I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent.
And they’re actually really, really nice.
LCD Soundsystem, “Losing My Edge”
Let’s say you’re writing a sports story. You have a sport: mixed martial bowling, say. Your hero learns the sport, but aspires to greatness. He or she has a fatal flaw and corrects it, probably something to do not with technique, but with character, and which is resolved by a critical moment with either a mentor or a love interest. The hero learns something about himself/herself: in mixed martial bowling, it’s all about letting go and believing in the ball. Our hero suddenly finally sorts that out after a tearful goodbye to mentor at the aiport/courtroom/hospice and/or a heartfelt apology to Love Interest for being jealous after he/she went out with Rival because the hero stood him/her up to practice more for impending competition, but there’s time to brood on it because the competition is now.
At this point you (you’re the writer, remember?) have a critical decision. Your hero can WIN, recover their love, see the smiling approval of the mentor, or your hero can LOSE, consigned to an apologetic epilogue where it turns out s/he didn’t really lose, not really, because the lessons and the love were more important all along. You (the writer) take the path less traveled by.
What will never happen is that hero loses in the first round, and is so badly trounced that sportswriters use military metaphors in their headlines. That’s a first act scene. It’s before New Coach comes in. Before Hero’s quirky mixed martial bowling delivery is seen by mentor, corrected, and the new dawn pushes its first golden rays across the horizon of hope. So goes every sports story ever told.
You never see a story that celebrates merely playing, and we’re poorly prepared to take satisfaction in awards for participation. Though we might learn a sportsmanlike attitude about losing, that’s reserved for games that don’t matter to us personally—they are not our story. The mixed martial bowler is fine to have a hilarious scene where Love Interest trounces him/her at checkers/tennis/miniature golf, because it’s a filler scene, part of montage. It doesn’t the game that matters.
But what about YOUR story, oh writer? What if you suffer through the practice montages, pump your fist to the inspiring speeches, have the big cinematic moment with Love Interest, hear the swelling music of your soundtrack, run in, and leave a big stinking, er, egg… on the alley? What if it’s a disaster? What if you come in third-to-last place?
Eventually reality settles in. Not dramatic/artistic self-doubt, but experienced self-knowledge, the realization that one isn’t starring in this movie at all, that–at best–one is part of a montage of Other Competitors. You just aren’t that good this year. Maybe you’re not that good, you know, this ever. There’s no shame in it – either not being that good or knowing it – but nothing has prepared you for this eventuality. Our culture celebrates ego and ambition, pathologizes self-doubt and humility, at least when they are not a contrapuntal theme accompanying the story of a wildly self-destructive but iconic artist/athlete. (Find a YouTube scene with Bette Midler in her not-really-Janis-Joplin movie, there must be one that depicts this perfectly.)
Point being, ten books into my career I feel like the minor leaguer in Greg Brown’s “Laughing River” (wait – YouTube that instead; love ya Bette but nobody needs to hear “The Rose” again in this ever): looking myself in the mirror and saying “I gotta a few hits but I never made the show.” It’s not just that it hasn’t happened yet, it’s that, you know, the books I’ve sent into the world—those are what I got. I don’t have this incredible Book Thief-like project I’m dying to write and I just need the right inspiring speech by Burgess Meredith to dust off the draft and power montage my way through it. That book, the deeply personal one, is called Mamba Point, and its beautiful cover is unblemished by stickers. Add to that, the realization, man there are a lot of good books out there, and people (like Zusak himself) who are way younger and writing circles around me.
Not that I’m ready to trade my bat in for a fishing pole just yet–unlike the guy in the song, I’m going to “hang on for a few years/doin’ what I’ve done before.” But I think, once you know the world isn’t waiting breathless for your next book, that it’s not going to be tossed into conversations about lists and awards just because you wrote it, that it probably won’t be reviewed in the New York Times or set up in tantalizing “Just Released” displays, that it takes a bit more to keep at it. It’s not about the dream anymore. Maybe, like Crash Davis, I can at least help a rising star or two and set an unusual record.