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Sunday Surprise: Reheated Philosophy

April 18, 2010

A few Tuesdays ago I wrote a de-motivational post about if you’re getting a lot of rejections and you’re good at something else you should go do that.  This past Tuesday I was watching the mediocre Zach Braff movie “The Last Kiss” where his prospective father-in-law (Tom Wilkerson) gives him this absurd advice:  “If you never give up you can never fail.”

I laughed out loud at that.  Of course you can still fail!  The only difference is that you’ll fail many more times.  (Spoiler alert!)  The movie ends with Zach Braff applying this principle by camping out on his girlfriend’s porch until she lets him back into the house even though he had just cheated on her with a college student while she was pregnant with their first child.  I guess this was supposed to be romantic or heartwarming or something; I would have preferred she lured him inside, clobbered him with a frying pan, and then hid the body in the basement.

Anyway, my feelings about the movie aren’t important here.  What is important is the absurdity of the quote about never giving up.  The irony is that the Tom Wilkerson character is a shrink in the movie.  His advice sounds more like what a stalker who needs a shrink would say.  Seriously, isn’t that the mentality of stalkers, that they keep trying even after she says no, calls the police, gets a restraining order, buys a large guard dog, and starts taking lessons at the gun range?  But keep trying because even if she says “No” 100 times on the 101st time she might say “Yes!”  (Or she might clobber you with a frying pan and chain you up in the basement.)

It isn’t until someone says something like that that you really see how psychologically unhealthy that attitude is.  Of course there’s a time to give up!  The smart general is the one who realizes this and retreats to fight another day.  The idiot is the one who orders the Famous Last Stand; the guys at the Alamo never gave up–and they all died!

If you think about it, our need in religion for an afterlife is a byproduct of this philosophy.  Death is seemingly the one time we all will have to finally give up and succumb.  So along comes religion with its great idea that not even in Death do we have to give up.  Never give in to Death because if you believe in my god and you’ll go on living in the afterlife forever!  It’s a lot easier of a philosophy to sell than the probably more accurate one, “Believe whatever you want but in the end you’re still worm food.”

Let’s face it, the idea of giving up isn’t pleasant.  That means we’ve failed.  It means we aren’t as good at something as we believe.  It means you have to redefine yourself and confront uncomfortable realities such as all that “You can do anything” and “Win one for the Gipper” is a lot of nonsense.  Whether it’s a relationship, a battle, or Death, it’s hard to admit and come to grips with our own frailties.  So we put our faith in nice little missives like, “If you never give up you can never fail.” because they cater to our self-centered need to feel strong and in control, to be a winner.

It’s this same advice that a lot of would-be writing gurus offer in self-help books and on message boards.  Never give up!  Look at Author X who got rejected a million times and then finally succeeded!  Right, and how many during that time kept getting rejected and never succeeded?  A much bigger number to be sure.

As with everything else in life, it isn’t easy to admit that you’re not as great a writer as you thought.  If you’re like me, when you were a child–and young adult–you had people telling you how great you were:  parents, friends, teachers, and so forth.  You then bought into the hype and thought you really were great.  You wrote your little heart out, printed out your story, put it into a box, and mailed it to a publisher certain that before long you were going to be a rich and famous author.

And then came the shock of the form letter saying you had been rejected.  That is if you were fortunate.  If you were unfortunate they might never have sent anything at all and you might have called their office to find out only to be told by a snarly receptionist to get off the line.  (OK, they never happened to me but it certainly could have.)

Then, applying the “If you never give up you never fail” philosophy you decided that all you needed was to work on your craft.  So you read some self-help books, some great novels, took classes, participated in critique groups and the whole nine yards.  Then you wrote your masterpiece, your magna opus, tucked it into an Email attachment and sent it off to an agent only for the same thing to happen.

If we apply the stalker philosophy of never giving up then you can carry on this dance ad nauseum until you finally die and then perhaps into the afterlife.  That’s just nuts, obsessive denial in the face of overwhelming evidence.

So let’s just set a cap on trying and failing.  Once you reach that cap you have to give up and cope with your failures.

Because I’m a baseball fan I’d say if you ask a girl out three times and she refuses all three, then yer outta there!

For writing queries I think we need more of a sliding scale.  If you’re a total masochist then let’s say 100 queries (Email and snail mail) and you’re out.  And I mean 100 total for the project.  Not send 100 then change a couple of words in the query and send another 100.  (Does it need to be said you shouldn’t send all 100 to the same place?  If so then consider it said.)  If you’re not a masochist but obsessive about things like cleaning the house and washing your hands and whatnot then dial it down to 50.  And if you’re an overly sensitive wimp like me then make it 25.

Does that seem harsh?  I don’t think so.  If you can’t make it with 1 of 100 agents or publishers then what good is another 100 or another 1000 going to do?  I’m guessing not much.

If we apply this philosophy then not only are you saving yourself some emotional grief from years of denial, but there are also more practical benefits.  For one it’ll get people to research agents and publishers better, so no more of that shotgun approach of sending to everyone even if your story is about lesbian vampires who ride dragons and the agent only represents Christian nonfiction.  As well it should cut down on the number of queries jamming up virtual and real mailboxes across New York City, which means more time for interns to read people they haven’t rejected 17 times before.  And even though many people still use Email for most things, not everyone does so we’ll save a few trees too.

The downside for you is that you’d reach that threshold of realizing your suckiness far sooner.  That’s a painful experience, but if you apply the same “Never give up” spirit you’ll probably find the silver lining and embrace your interest in gardening or knitting or pot smoking. (OK, I do not embrace pot smoking as a coping mechanism–so far as any government agents can prove…yet.)

It’s a better world for all of us when we finally learn to give up.

That Tip not Terrible enough for you?  Don’t worry, I’ll have another one on Tuesday!


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One Comment
  1. What if I don’t WANT to admit my suckiness?

    Your advice is pretty good — but I’d add a twist. If you don’t succeed in the traditional route in 100 tries, why not try something related to what you like, but a little different. That is, if you like to write but can’t get anyone to publish your Lesbian Vampires book, maybe try your hand at some other kind of writing?

    Just a thought.

    Also a thought: Your lesbian vampires would totally get their butts whooped by my lesbian zombies:

    (And also: I’ve never queried a Christian publisher for that one.)

    I like your blog — I’ll bookmark it & check it out.

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