Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Slow and Steady

To no one's surprise, I was a serious child who had an obsession with excellence.

I hated if I failed or made a mistake. I remember the first time I got a paper back with a less than perfect score (in kindergarten), and my first thought was that the teacher must have messed up the grading. When I looked at what she'd marked and found that I had indeed failed to be perfect, I cried in class. The teacher actually took time out to explain to me that everyone makes mistakes, even animals in nature--she told me some odd story about birds that build nests and then the nests fall apart so they have to build a new, better one. I didn't get it. I just wanted to be perfect, I guess.

I was just thinking about how when I was in elementary school, during field day I entered the egg race. (We had to enter at least two events, and I thought the egg race sounded safe.) I had to balance an egg on the bowl of a spoon and go as fast as I could down the field with the egg balanced. And I'd practiced at home. I knew I could do it. I just couldn't go very fast.

When the race began, the children took off all around me and many of them lost their eggs right away. I didn't care about speed; I cared about not dropping the egg. So I kept walking very slowly with the egg balanced, not taking my eyes off it, not noticing if anyone was ahead of me.

And then the race apparently ended and I was still going. They were literally declaring the winners before someone noticed the tiny blonde person walking very slowly still halfway down the field. You see, only one person had crossed the finish line with their egg intact, so they were about to hand out the second place and third place ribbons to the people who'd gotten the farthest before their eggs splatted on the ground. Since I hadn't lost mine yet, I might still make second place if I could get there without losing the egg.

When the audience realized there was still someone in the competition, I remember hearing them collectively start cheering, and it was very distracting. I'd never been cheered for in any kind of athletic event before (if this counted), and the idea that I was giving them a good show and doing something exciting was pretty awesome. So I kept plugging away walking down that field, and I made it to the finish line without losing the egg. I got a red second-place ribbon--WOW, I'd only ever gotten "participant" ribbons before!--and I could hardly believe in that case that "slow and steady" actually HAD won the race.

Except, well, I didn't exactly WIN the race. Someone else who'd done it way faster than me actually got the blue ribbon.

For some things, second place is pretty amazing. But for others, you have to get first place before you are anything but first loser. I've gotten many of the things I have today by being slow and steady, but the person who won that egg race was fast and steady. Can you learn to speed up if you've already got "steady" down? Can you cross that line from conscientious plodding into full-blown excellence?

In my writing career I'm already doing things many people want to do and haven't managed to achieve yet. People who are trying to do it and people who will never do it but admire from the sidelines nonetheless are all impressed with how far I've come. I've written books, after all. I got signed to literary agents not once but twice for different projects. And one of my books sold to an independent publisher and will come out later this year. But the thing I'm really invested in doing--the reason I signed up for this race--is getting a book deal for my fantasy series. That's the blue ribbon, and I'd go on from there to hopefully win more races.

There's a division between professionals and amateurs--people who win races and people who just do pretty well in them--and the arena is different when you're trying to really do it. For instance, many of my non-musician acquaintances and friends think I'm ridiculously talented at singing. They urge me to try out for American Idol (even though I'm way over the age limit), demand to know why I'm not signing record deals or playing venues, and praise me highly. But in reality? Not even the other students in the music college I went to thought I was anything special, and neither did the teachers. I can guarantee you that I wouldn't be celebrated as a rare talent in the professional music world. I'd be given a "participant" ribbon. That's it.

Right now I'm trying to play with the big boys. I'm trying to find out what kind of ribbon I can earn if I do cross that finish line, though forces beyond my control might flick my egg off the spoon at any moment. I don't know if I can win, though I've already seen I can place. I want that blue ribbon. And it's not about glory or pride. It's about the reasons behind my desire to tell stories. It's about being given the platform that will encourage people to listen. It's about my personal pact with myself to deliver the whole package--steadiness with speediness--and it's about being able to help others follow in my footsteps.

As long as my footsteps actually lead to the finish line.

I guess I won't know until I cross it.

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