Taking Risks and Telling Stories

I have a recurring conversation with a friend of mine about risk tolerance.  In most obvious ways, hers is higher than mine.  She’s been self-employed, flying without a net, for most of her adult life and she’s comfortable with that.  Her experience gives her confidence. I, on the other hand, was raised by depression era parents (I came along late in their lives) and the lessons they learned about security and preparing for the worst were taught to me in the cradle.

But risk tolerance is a relative thing, and I’ve been told by another friend that I’m the brave one. Boy, did that make me take a second look at myself!  Me?  The brave one?  No way! Until she reminded me of several things I’ve done over the years, risks I’ve taken, to get something I wanted.

I’d been telling myself the wrong story.

In a long conversation with J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler (the author who turned down a two-book, half-a-mil deal to self-publish his next books) said that it’s very important for an author to have a good bio.  I’ve heard this before. Think how much it helped J.K. Rowling that her fans knew she’d been on the dole before selling the first Harry Potter book. We don’t begrudge her success because we know she earned it.  Likewise, Stephen King fans all know that Carrie was rescued from the waste can by King’s wife.  These are great stories.  They capture the reader’s imagination.

Similarly, the stories we tell ourselves are important.  We program ourselves for success or failure through messages we give ourselves.  Most people who ultimately succeed have moments of doubt, but they don’t stay in that dark place.  They remember that like the heroes and heroines of our books, they will eventually overcome their obstacles and will conquer their opposition.  That’s the story we have to keep telling ourselves:  I can do this.

The publishing industry is facing interesting times, in that old Chinese curse sort of way, and authors are feeling it.  I know writers who have had their publisher go belly up, or who haven’t been offered another contract because their last book didn’t sell as well as expected, or who haven’t been offered a contract at all because their book didn’t fit in a neat marketing box.  But all of them are still writing.  They didn’t stop taking the risk of putting their work out there.  They’re still telling themselves the story of their success, and working to make it reality.

What’s your story?


1 Comment

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One response to “Taking Risks and Telling Stories

  1. Benita

    I think writing, especially fiction, is an inherently psychologically risky endeavor. It is, essentially, a public art performance, where you are inviting others to judge the quality of your work. Outside of the arts, there aren’t many professions where that is true. I’ve been observed and critiqued by professors, colleagues in a teaching setting, mentors, and interns that I was supervising. But I don’t videotape my work and put it out there for others to say “Hmm…that was a bit awkward” or “I think here it would have been better if…” Yet authors subject them to that kind of scrutiny not only from editors and publishers but from each and every reader.

    Now, regarding the stories we tell ourselves…
    I think that is so fundamental. This is, in fact, the basis of cognitive therapy. What do you tell yourself about yourself, the world, and your place in it? As they say, argue for your limitations and they are yours. Argue for your capablilities and possiblities, however, and the picture changes completely.

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