“The greatest barrier you have overcome in the past is not as important as any of the barriers you must overcome in your future.”—Hua-Shi Teng
I tend to focus on my failings instead of my triumphs. When I look back over a year, a decade or a lifetime, what stands out to me are not the victories and accomplishments, but the defeats and the mistakes. For each of these, I study and learn, swearing to do better in the future. When the future becomes the present, I use what I’ve learned. No matter what happens, though, I always look at it through a particular lens. Anything that wasn’t perfect, wasn’t maximally effective and efficient, wasn’t flawless—THAT’S what becomes the defining element of the narrative of my life.
Not really a very healthy way to live, is it?
When faced with the flat question, “What is your greatest triumph as a writer?”, I can’t but think that the circumstances of life make that a bad question to ask. Ask me what my greatest failure is and I could list off a few items. This doesn’t bother me, though, because I can always say, “… but I’m better now than I was when I did that, or when that was done to me and I responded poorly.” Focusing on past failure allows me to focus on present improvement.
Now, consider the implications of focusing on my greatest triumph. There have been a number of cool things that I’ve done, or that were done for me. If I point to any of those and say, “There! That was it! That was the moment of my greatest achievement!”, then I am also saying, “… and it’s been downhill ever since.”
The fact is, I fully expect that my greatest days are ahead of me. I could bask in past accomplishments, but doesn’t that lead to relaxation and resting on one’s laurels?
I’ve got many more readers than I used to. I’ve got many more publications than I used to. My writing is better than it used to be. I have a keener eye and a clearer head and a sharper voice than I used to. Neil Gaiman once told me that he liked one of my stories, that he thought it was funny. A reader once told me that my willingness to share the ups and downs of my writing journey was inspiring to her. Editors have sought me out so they could pay me for my work. All of my accomplishment and failures, my triumphs and my faceplants, all of them have brought me up to the NOW that lets me write this.
Pick a point in the past… how did I get there?
What about now? How did I end up here?
Pick a point in the future… what will lead me there?
These all have flip, easy answers. I wrote, I showed it to other people, I listened to what they said, I learned and got better, then started writing again.
I didn’t “end up” here. I didn’t “end up” anywhere. Life is a journey, and I’m still in the middle of it. I was walking along the road at every point the past, I’m walking now and I’ll keep walking as long as I have strength. I’ll never arrive, but that’s not the point, is it? What I considered a triumph two years ago I might now see as a childhood fancy. What I might now recall as a triumph of my past, or anticipate as a triumph of my future, a future Tony Noland might chuckle at as a journeyman’s tin pot.
With that in mind, do you still want to know what my greatest triumph is?
I’m living it right now. “Goodbye Grammarian” stands at 101,000 words. I’ve brought it from a 50K NaNoWriMo, through an 80K first draft to its present 101K second draft state. I’m polishing it before I send it off to my beta readers. This is the best thing I’ve ever written, the most complex and complete storytelling I’ve ever undertaken. When it’s complete and on its way to be published, I’ll be writing a new book; I expect that it will be even better than “Goodbye Grammarian”.
My greatest triumph is where I am NOW. And if I do things properly as a writer, it always will be.