Thursday, March 3, 2011

You can't game the system

Over the last couple of months or so I've chatted with, advised, and/or agreed to provide references for a whole slew of people who are applying for things: grants, scholarships, jobs, prizes, contracts, and more. It's gradually become clear to me that a lot of people out there believe in superstitious behaviour and magical thinking: that if they just talk to the right person, if they just use the right code words in their application, if they could just use the right bio then they'd be accepted, over the threshhold, in with the in-crowd.

Life's not like that. Sending this story instead of that won't get you the grant. Going to this conference instead of that won't make you best friends with the CEO (or editor, or grantor) who will change your life.

That is, it might. But only if you're ready. Only if you've done the work. Only if you're good enough. Getting a job, winning a grant or selling a novel to a particular imprint doesn't make you a great writer. It makes you someone who got a job, won a grant or got published by a particular imprint. The only thing that makes you a great writer/leader/barista is, well, being a great writer/leader/barista.

There is no silver bullet, secret decoder ring, no funny handshake that will give you entree to a reality where you're a great writer/leader/barista. Not for the long term. There's only talent, hard work, and relationships. (Also--the joker in the pack--luck. Though most luck, in my opinion, is an opportunity well taken.) If you write the kind of stuff that will one day win an NEA award, then one day you'll win an NEA award--it doesn't matter which part of the novel, precisely, you submit or whether it's been edited/blessed by someone famous. Your work will either appeal to the panelists or it won't. (Full disclosure: mine never has. Why? Haven't a clue. We're just not a fit. Why? Well, that's one of the great mysteries of the universe. Though, of course, they are so WRONG!)

So don't stress about the unnecessary details. Just do your best. Constantly. Stop trying to game the system. Put your time and energy into the actual work. And good luck.

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