Thursday, February 25, 2021

Achievement and All That Jazz


Dancing on the beach . . . 

I've loved this photograph from the minute I found it. It was just what I was looking for to use in my book trailer for Better Than Perfect, my YA novel set in 1970s New Zealand. The scene made me think of "poised for success," which was exactly how I wanted to portray one of the book's central characters, Ravenna St. James. Ravenna is a teenage girl on the brink of adulthood pushed by her mother and family to achieve more than she is emotionally capable of. Her younger cousin and the first-person narrator of the story, Elizabeth Haddon, is forced to live with Ravenna and her family when her own mother dies. Living in Ravenna's shadow as she sails from one glory to the next, Elizabeth begins to doubt her own self-worth and fears she will never do anything in life to equal or surpass her cousin's many achievements.

Elizabeth has always been one of my favorite characters. Her concerns and struggles to get somewhere in life are feelings I believe we all deal with on one level or another from the day we're born: our first smile, our first words and steps, our first "A" for spelling. Woe betide the child who's running a little behind or to a different drumbeat!

What got me thinking about achievement and its accompanying baggage was reading a tweet (what would I do without Twitter . . . ) about how difficult it was to write an author biography, you know, those paragraphs you're supposed to include with your manuscript submission package along with your synopsis and marketing plan. Personally I hate writing them. All I can ever think of is, I lived here, I lived there, I am boring. When I do take the leap and try to include any accomplishments that might make me sound like a more interesting person, I immediately pull back, thinking: Whoa, stop right there. That's way too braggy, tone it down. And cut out all that arty stuff. Nobody wants to read about your bead making or silver clay experiments. Which then leaves me with: I lived here and there and have a BA. Whoopee!

This isn't the first time I've wondered about what is a real achievement. Last year in particular when we were first getting used to lock downs and the lack of genuine social interaction the subject truly troubled me because 2020 was meant to be The Year of Achievement!  I had made so many plans in the weeks prior to the pandemic to put myself forward, to enter art shows, to sell my jewelry at craft fairs, and of course to market and sell my manuscripts. Then practically overnight all the doors slammed shut. Even my agent couldn't get a single response from the publishers she tried to contact. How could I achieve anything locked in my room? 

The answer was to keep going regardless of circumstance and to create my own definition of achievement. In my journal I wrote: 

Achievement doesn't have to be grand, showy, or seen by the neighbors. Achievement is reaching your own self-created milestones, taking on something you love but that also has degrees of difficulty that require dedication. Achievement is sticking to your plan and seeing it through to the very end.

Following that, I then wrote my steps to get there:

  • Focus, focus, focus. Be still and pinpoint exactly what it is I can do with limited opportunity.
  • Choose one project to work on at a time. Just one, and fall in love with it.
  • Give that project my full attention and effort.
  • Commit to finishing, no matter what.
  • Use and appreciate adversity--find the silver lining. For instance, without my usual daily distractions, classes, and groups I can find loads of extra writing, drawing, and creative time. Seize the day!
  • Use positive affirmations, e.g., "I wake up happy to focus and continue writing my novel."

My list worked. Looking back over 2020 and now into the wide open space of 2021, I feel I achieved quite a lot. And you can too, one small or large action at a time. The main thing to keep in mind is never underestimate your achievements, and never compare them to others. Each achievement is unique and valuable in its own right. Don't fall into the trap of thinking achievement means publishing a best-seller or getting a six-figure publishing deal. These things are only for the moment anyway, wonderful high points good until it's time to repeat them. More often than not the true achievement is having the courage to write, edit, and polish a 300-page manuscript that may never see the light of day but one you're willing to submit 564 times before you call it quits. (But please don't quit.)

Tip of the Day: Whether you're writing an author biography, an artist statement, or just a daily journal entry, a good first step to evaluating your true achievements is to make a list of every past thing you regard as important to you, great and small. Don't censor yourself. Have fun, be braggy, be silly. Now pick the top three that relate best to whatever it is you're drafting and expand on those. I promise you'll be surprised at just how accomplished and fascinating you really are!


Sue said...

Excellent reminders about focus and completing projects. Self-talk is really important when being creative, particularly when there are no guarantees about the outcome. The only outcome we're responsible for is to finish it! Thanks for this post. It was just what I needed to read right now!

Valerie Storey said...

Thanks for visiting, Sue! Glad I could offer some helpful tips for crossing the finishing line. Sometimes the hardest part is right at the very end, trying to muster those last ounces of energy and enthusiasm. Choosing and promising myself some kind of "reward" for good behavior and sticking-to-it-ness usually works for me, LOL!