Saturday, August 05, 2006

Petty Business

A police siren screams down the street, past our backyard. The puppies jangle about beside the fence line searching for something to growl at. Saturday. The incessant heat of earlier in the week has subsided. A cool breeze wafts in from the west as another airliner overhead pierces the constant hum of cicada chatter. Michelle is upstairs in the corner of our bedroom that's become our office. She may be crafting a work of genius, reading fiction submissions to Ward 6, reading one of my newly organized manuscripts, browsing through iTunes, or playing solitaire. I'm not entirely sure.

I've been up since Dixie, the Jack Russell, woke us with her warbling pleas at 7:30 this morning. Most days, she's more precise than any alarm clock. Yet, even though I've been up for three hours, I've been mired by thinking. I did manage to drive a few miles across the sloping hills of Cincinnati and Cheviot to procure enough coffee to snap me from the sleep-induced daze that is threatening to return, and I did manage to check the variety of email accounts I keep, but I've yet to confront the task that seems to be knotting my back with stress: business.

Ah for the life of a freelancer! You can spend an entire week waiting for work, scouring contacts for work, soliciting strangers through the Internet for work, and contemplating any variety of hair-brained schemes to get work only to find that the work you wanted on Monday has arrived on Saturday, when you'd prefer to be walking the city streets in search of a bookstore or an as yet undiscovered bistro.

Alas, as a freelancer (at least in the beginning), you have to seize the opportunities you have. Some of us learn this the hard way. Others, I suppose, stumble from opportunity to opportunity, taking advantage of whatever luck they see while finding ways to make that luck happen. To everyone else, such people must seem blessed or lucky or immensely talented. Perhaps, this is true, but I suspect there is more to the story.

You see, in graduate school, a few of my peers had far more success than I did. In fact, ten years later, this is still true. For a number of years, I would occasionally run across the name of a former classmate in a literary journal or on a website somewhere, and I'd feel that inevitable twinge of jealousy. More, I would reflect on my life thus far, and fall into a funk about my seeming lack of success that must have resembled depression from the perspective of my friends.

Of course, I knew, even in the midst of the wallowing, that such sour grapes were pointless. Brooding about the success of others will not help you revise a poem or bang out the first few pages of a short story. Instead, the best you can hope for is that such thoughts don't make you question your resolve—that you don't look at the success of others as some sort of tacit indictment of your own career.

Imagine, for example, that you're in a workshop and preparing to discuss a poem from one of your peers. You launch into your critique, full of bravado, and certain that you can help her make the poem far better. Now, imagine that after the final critique has been offered, while the class prepares to move on, your peer informs you that the poem has just been accepted for publication in The American Poetry Review.

How would you react?

Personally, I don't imagine that I reacted that well. But why? After all, she had the initiative and courage to submit her poetry widely. I, on the other hand, was concentrating on my studies and aiming to make each poem as perfect as it possibly could be. In other words, I wasn't prepared to have my work out in the public, being evaluated. So, why, should I have been jealous? She was, after all, only seizing an opportunity.

Personally, I've been more adept at letting opportunities slip away, at least until recently. Now, I think I understand a bit more about how to make those opportunities.


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