There is an experience I have had throughout my life. Whenever I have been interested in accomplishing something, the first step has always been easy. Not just easy, kind of a joke. In my first attempts at almost anything, I have generally been handed a win. When I was in college, I took a playwriting class. I wrote the first act of a play and got rave reviews from both my teacher and my fellow students. I ended up getting a D in that class, my only D ever in my entire school career, because after that first act, I never wrote another line for that play. Or for that class at all, as a matter of fact.
Then, when I was 20 years old, I had dropped out of college and wanted to be a professional stage actor. I was working at a restaurant, and a man walked in, approached me, and asked me to audition for a long-running, famous stage show. I showed up and got the part.
This is not normal or common. If you or someone you love is an actor, you probably know that the process of getting a professional acting job is not generally that quick or easy. A professional actor puts in a lot of work just to get an audition, let alone a part. Being an actor is not all developing a character, having a genuine moment with a fellow actor, or transforming into someone else to the joy and awe of an audience. There are head shots, cattle calls, cold reads, agents (if you are lucky enough to get one) and just generally lots of fruitless pavement-pounding. The whole thing is full of work that is not glamorous or exciting. I never auditioned for another professional acting job again. (Though I did dance with a company a few years later, but I never auditioned. And though I was paid, and took it quite seriously – I really love to perform – it was not a job, and I never thought of it as one.
Last week, I submitted my first article to an online publication. Within days I got a response saying that my piece was accepted for publication. (You can read it here.)
It was a first attempt at something, and it was, once again, handed to me.
Please don’t misunderstand; I know that I am a quality writer. I know that I have a gift for expressing complicated ideas, and for illustrating how things work in relation to other things, both mechanical and interpersonal. But there is a way of things with that kind of writing, very much like the way of things with acting. There are query letters, and résumés where you explain why you are qualified to write on a topic. There are rules about simultaneous submissions of the same piece to multiple publications, and protocol to follow if you need to “unsubmit” a piece from various publications because that piece has been accepted at one particular publication.
And then there is self-promotion. I can’t even tell you how I hate self-promotion.
Perhaps it has a lot to do with my Good Girl, who just wants to be liked. Or maybe it’s my Fat Girl, who is afraid of drawing attention, and thereby ridicule.
And there is something else. It’s a thing I sometimes forget. I am easily overwhelmed. If I step back, and look at the whole picture, it is always too much to take in. And yet, it is my default setting.
I am a huge fan of the grandiose. Maybe that’s why it seems right to me to take three giant steps back and take in the whole wide world at a glance. But I need to remember that after that first sense of wonder, what seeps in is paralysis.
By getting my eating under control, I learned two really important lessons about achievement.
1) all I have to do is take the next right action. And the next right action is usually small. Sometimes, it is literally eating my lunch.
And 2) Sometimes the next right action is unclear, and all there is to do is wait for the moment when I know what the next right action is. One of my favorite sayings is, “when you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything.”
This second one, especially, is not particularly popular in our hyper-active, results-based culture of “winning.” But I find that the answer always does come, eventually. And for me, even if I fail, I feel that an action born from following my heart is always worth my time. An action born of the fear of not taking action generally leads to a lot of messes I have to clean up before I can move forward again.
I don’t know what to expect from choosing to write professionally. (But hopefully it includes lots of money and renown.) At this particular moment, the whole thing seems fraught with pitfalls and traps. Every set of submission guidelines occurs to me like it was written by a frosty, snooty schoolmarm with a too-tight bun who would like to know just who in blazes I think I am.
But I have to remember another thing I learned when I got my eating under control. Any time I tackle something new, there is always a learning curve. Even if that first experience was easy peasy, there will always be a set of necessary skills that I lack. And it will always take time to acquire those skills. If I choose to do the work at all.
The little girl in me who is terrified of failure would choose a chocolate cake over any work every time. But I don’t let her make decisions anymore. So I will figure out what the next right action is eventually. And in the meantime, I will keep doing the fun part. I will write, and read, and deconstruct the genius of what is already out there. I will do my part to acquire the skills that I lack. And I will take all of the next right actions, one at a time. And I will particularly look forward to the moments when the next right action is lunch. Or dinner. Or breakfast.