Sometimes my family goes bowling on Sundays. The first time we played, there were no lanes available with bumpers, those little guardrails that stop your ball from rolling into the gutter. My youngest kids are 5 and 7, and their balls rolled into the gutters more often than not.
It didn’t matter. We got French fries.
The second time we went bowling, we scored a bumper lane. No more gutter balls! We were all winners! My 5-year-old was knocking down all the pins! My 7-year-old perfected a technique of ricocheting the ball off the bumpers like a pinball!
And then my 12-year-old turned to me and said, “This is dumb. There’s no challenge.”
And he was right.
Every time I knocked down all the pins, but I knew some of my balls would have been gutter-balls if the bumpers had been down, I felt like a cheater. It wasn’t earned.
Life has to include failure. I tell my kids all the time (about playing instruments, and sports, and complicated hobbies), “It’s supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it, and it would be no big deal. And think of how proud you’re going to be when you work so hard and succeed.”
Sometimes you need some help, sure. Training wheels. Bumpers in the bowling lane. But you can’t rely on them forever. At some point the success has to come from only you.
As adults, we sometimes forget this. We live in a world where so much is handed to us. I want to see a video of a skateboarding goat, I want to know what’s the capital of Botswana, or how to make Baked Alaska. I can find all these in seconds. I can drive to the grocery store to buy gelato. I can get Band-Aids with Mickey Mouse on them. I can hear a song I like on the radio and then buy it and find the lyrics and sing along (a significant upgrade from when I was 8 and got the song by holding my cassette recorder up to the radio speaker, and got the lyrics by carefully transcribing them).
The world is a wondrous place.
But you know what? The things that are most worth doing, the things you will feel proudest of, are still things that are hard and fraught with potential for failure.
“I want to write a children’s book!” people tell me, as if, in this world of ours, they can buy their already-written book from the internet.
“I wrote this book!” they say, holding out a 4,000-word poorly-rhymed story that teaches a lesson about tooth brushing. “How do I get it published so I can be a millionaire?”
Those are the easy ones to point at. You’re all shaking your head now. You’ve met those people.
I do it too though, when I hope it’ll all be easy. Writing is hard. Sometimes it’s unimaginably hard. And it’s made harder by the fact that maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t matter. Writing is imaginary. It’s words from my head on imaginary paper on my computer. It’s ones and zeroes and nothing at all. I’m not a doctor, I’m no air traffic controller. No one will die if I delete my entire book. No one perishes if I leave my story languishing.
But it’s my job and it’s what I love to do, and if you’re in that position about anything, you have to do it well. You have to do your absolute best. Don’t turn in half-baked garbage. Who is that benefitting? You might think it’s allowing you to check off a box that says DONE, but it’s not. If you know it could be better, then take the time to make it awesome. Why would you not?
My first published picture book, Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), came to me fairly easily. I got lucky on that one. No gutter balls. My second book was different. The characters changed and then the plot changed and it changed again and at one point my editor let me know gently that it still wasn’t working and I wrote five completely different versions in a week. I spent a lot of that week lying in bed, curled on my side, moaning. The writing was giving me cramps. It was the hardest writing had ever been.
What kept me going was the firm desire to do my very best. If I make a book, and my name is on that book, it had better be the best darn book I can make it. That second book, which is called The Society of Underrepresented Animals, was so hard to write, and I am so proud of it.
Because you can’t be proud of something you got handed. You can’t be proud of it if your final finished product didn’t take any work or skill on your part.
It’s worth it. You can do it.
My family bowled with the bumpers and it was fine but felt fake. And then we realized that we could push the bumpers right down. It’s an old bowling alley and not very mechanized and the way to get rid of the bumpers is to kick them gently with your foot, and they slide right back down.
Our score was a lot lower after that, but we earned every single pin we knocked down. My 7-year-old knocked down 8 pins with no bumpers, and did a little dance. She’d earned it.
Look at your work, at your writing. Are you pushing yourself to make each story better than the last? Are you pushing yourself to make every story as good as it can be?
Take your time. There’s no rush. The bumpers are the thoughts in your mind that say you can’t do this. They say you’ll never get any better. The bumpers are liars. Once you kick them down, they cease to exist, and that scares them.
Kick down the bumpers.
Julie Falatko is the author of Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), illustrated by Tim Miller (Viking) and two more upcoming picture books from Viking. She lives in Maine with her family, where they always kick the bumpers down.
GIVEAWAY INFORMATION (from Stacey):
This giveaway is for a copy of Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book). Many thanks to Viking Books for Young Readers for donating a copy for one reader. For a chance to win this copy of Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), please leave a comment about this post by Saturday, June 4th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Monday, June 6th. Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Viking will ship your book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.) If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – SNAPPSY. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Thank you to everyone who left a comment on this post. A special thank-you to Julie for taking the time to respond to so many of our readers’ comments!
I used a random number generator and Susanne’s number came up. Therefore, she’ll win the copy of Snappsy.