I don't watch much television, but for some reason over the past few weeks I've drifted into watching Ninja Warrior--at least I think that's what it's called. It's a show taking place in Las Vegas where the various contestants compete on an obstacle course hoping to be proclaimed the first American Ninja Warrior. Most of the contestants wind up falling from rolling drums, swinging cables, or some other dangerous obstacle into the water below. The few who actually make it through to the end of the course seem to me to be the ones who are neither cocky and arrogant nor nervous and hesitant, and they are the ones I find myself cheering for. They're often the ones who have a band of family and friends cheering for them too. Life's a lot like that. Sure sometimes the cocky and arrogant appear to be the winners and sometimes the nervous Nellys luck out, but overall I think those who succeed in this life and feel good about their accomplishments are the ones who approach challenges with a mixture of confidence and humility. They're the ones who want to win for their loved one's sake and when they win they turn first to their family instead of the TV cameras and the pretty young woman there to interview them.
Because I'm a writer and over the years I've become accustomed to drawing parallels between most things that happen around me and writing, humor me as I draw a few parallels between writers and that Ninja show. To even compete the contestants spend years working out in gyms, rock climbing, running marathons, eating right, and doing whatever it takes to build the strength, speed, and endurance needed to qualify. Writers, too, need to do what it takes to qualify. This usually means a lot of reading, attending writing classes and conferences, observing both physical and human nature, studying language and grammar, and learning the art of self-discipline. (The self-discipline is necessary to keep us writing instead of playing on face book, watching TV, or cleaning the house instead of writing.)
We have to be confident enough of our ability to actually finish what we start and submit it to a publisher or agent and to keep writing when we get those inevitable rejection letters. We also need to be humble enough to learn from or at least live with poor reviews when we finally do get published.
I feel great sympathy for the contestants who fall in the water after they've worked and trained so hard. I feel great sympathy for writers who spend years perfecting a book then meet with one rejection after another. I can't help admiring those contestants who come back after failing, sometimes three or four years straight. I also admire writers who take those rejections, work harder, and resubmit their manuscripts.
My senior high school English seminar teacher, who knew I wanted to be a writer gave me some advice I've always remembered following some gushing remarks from a visiting writers' club president who compared my style to Hemingway's. He said "Don't compare yourself to other writers. Be yourself. But always remember you're better than someone, but someone out there is better than you." I'm often asked at book signings and by those who dream of a writing career what advice I would give them. Sometimes I pass on my teacher's advice and sometimes I simply say, "Read everything you can get your hands on. Write something even if it's a journal entry or a shopping list every day. Join a critique group and stop talking long enough to listen to what the others have to say. Finish what you start and submit it; when you get it back, fix it and submit it again."
Win or lose, luck sometimes plays a role, but hard work and perseverance are the attributes that can be counted on to take writers or Ninjas to the next level.