Tuesday, February 26, 2008

My First Review

I just got my first real review. It was from Kirkus, a review service - a trade publication - for bookstores, libraries and industry types. It is for anyone who wants to know about a book before it goes on sale. Reviewers for consumer publications read Kirkus before writing their reviews. It is the mother of all review publications. It is the review that begets more reviews. It’s the book about books. The meta book. A good review in Kirkus is important is what I’m trying to say. As you can imagine, I was thrilled when I received very positive commentary regarding CHALKED UP. But it was the following excerpt that got me thinking:

“It’s admirable to aspire to become a champion gymnast, but Sey’s depiction of her roller-coaster adolescence makes the point that it’s far more important to have a happy, healthy and sane childhood.”

Really? I’m not so sure. After all I went through – the emotionally abusive coaches, the bone shattering injuries, the depression, the eating disorders, the temporarily psychotic parents – I’m not entirely convinced that’s true. In my head, I know it is. But in my gut, I don’t really believe it. I struggle with this as I raise my own boys. I want them to have happy childhoods, of course. But adulthood lasts longer, and in my heart of hearts, I believe hard work that leads to success (not financial per se, but achievement in your chosen vocation) breeds happiness in adulthood. Good habits start early. Learning the value of hard work (cliché I know) should happen at a young age. If you don’t learn it when you’re young, I think it may be impossible to learn it later. We all know lazy grown ups. They don’t do the work then they bemoan their fate at not getting what they want.

When people ask my advice about writing (which I find hilarious; what do I know…I wrote one book!), I tell them “just write.” Then I tell them: “after you finish your first ---- (insert document here – book, screenplay, etc), set it aside and write another one. Then do it again.” Practice makes perfect. No matter how much we all want to believe we can be Diablo Cody, the breakout screenwriting star who wrote one screenplay, sold it and won an Oscar, it generally doesn’t happen that way. Many screenwriters – even working screenwriters who get paid to write stuff – toil in anonymity their entire lives. They do re-write after re-write and never get anything made. That doesn’t even include those poor, hardworking (or not so hardworking, as the case may be) folks who write and write and never even get an agent. Their work may not be any good, but that’s not the point. If you don’t work, if you don’t practice, if you don’t keep trying after you get rejected, after you fail, you certainly don’t have a shot in hell at ever selling something, getting something made, let alone winning an Oscar.

I know countless people who’ve written a single screenplay. They send it to me for commentary. (Like I know anything about writing screenplays.) I give my honest feedback because I feel like: If you’re going to ask me, I’m going to try to be helpful. Nice, but helpful. They likely want me to say something like: “This is great! I’ll send it to my agent!” Never mind that my agent doesn’t sell screenplays, she sells books. Even if she did sell screenplays, I haven’t read anything I’d recommend without major revisions – other than my brother’s stuff. But he’s an actual working screenwriter, so that doesn’t count. I give the constructive criticism that I feel obliged to provide, and I suspect many of them give up because I never hear from them again. They never ask me to read a re-write or another story. Imagine, giving up after a little feedback from a barely working writer who knows nothing about that particular craft? If it was your first, it probably wasn’t any good anyway, and I was just trying to clue you in to the fact that you have to keep at it. The first effort is never any good. But perhaps you learned something in writing it that will lead to something better the second time. So that by the tenth time or so, you write something that is actually half-way decent. If you’ve got the natural aptitude to go along with the persistence.

But most people just give up. They try once, assume their God’s gift – the next Diablo or Matt/Ben combo – and throw in the towel when agents don’t line up at their front doors with million dollar offers. My experience has been entirely NOT that. I wrote and then I wrote some more. I’ve got a shoebox full of rejection letters from agents. Ten years after I first tried to write something, I sold a book. When I was a gymnast, I was the one no one thought was any good. But I didn’t accept it. And I labored. If a judge said I was fat, I lost weight. If a coach said I wasn’t strong enough, I did hours of extra conditioning at the end of practice. If a dance teacher said my toes weren’t pointed enough, I had my mother stand on them to bend my feet into perfect arches. I put myself through the grind to prove the doubters wrong. It wasn’t fun, to be sure. But it was satisfying in the end. And despite the brutal disappointment and harrowing and desperate depression that defined the end of my career, I have come to take great pride in what I accomplished.

I want my children to understand this – the value in never giving up, of self-belief in the face of adversity - but I strive to balance it with the desire for them to have pleasant, happy childhoods. I’m just not sure which way the scale should tilt. If I really wanted them to have happy childhoods – HAPPY childhoods – wouldn’t I just spoil them and give them candy for breakfast, McDonalds for lunch and chocolate cake with syrup on top for dinner? With a big glass of Coca-Cola on the side? With no homework, lots of TV and video games? That would make them happy! But I suspect their adulthoods might be filled with obesity, job loss and divorce (the divorce would be caused by activity encouraged later – screwing around, treating women poorly in general. They’d like that as teenagers!) None of these things would make them happy in their 30’s. But boy they’d be happy children.

Thus, I try to find the proper balance. They are young and just getting involved in sports. I like that their karate teacher can be kind of strict and give them the ‘I’m-disappointed’ look when they misbehave. Even though it makes the little guy cry sometimes. You’ve got to act right to learn, to achieve. You’ve got to focus, pay attention, maybe even be a little physically and psychically uncomfortable. My youngest wanted his new belt, the one after the starter white one, on the first day of class. Each day after class he cries because he hasn’t earned it yet and other kids in the class have fancier ones with red or yellow stripes. “Keep working,” I tell him. “You’ll get one.” He’s got to learn that not everyone is going to be enamored of his cute little face. Crying big tears won’t prompt the sensei to hand over the candy cane colored belt, so desperately craved.

The world just cares who does best. And while I don’t wish for them to be young champions or old, rich corporate raiders and I certainly don’t want them to sacrifice their health and well-being ala steroid crazed baseball players, I want them to experience an appropriate level of discomfort that comes from good old-fashioned hard work. To ensure their future satisfaction as adults. As unbearable as my competition days were, I am well-prepared for the world as a grown up. I’m happy. Accomplished. Satisfied. Sane. So maybe I’m not so wrong. Maybe a happy childhood isn’t the most important thing. Maybe a disciplined/healthy/moderately happy childhood is what we should strive to give our kids. It worked for me.

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