Wednesday, March 21, 2012

On Desire, Work, and Success

by Sheila Webster Boneham

Shannon Baker’s wonderful Inkspot entry on Monday, including the insert by Ira Glass, got me thinking about the whole business of wanting to do things and sticking with them long enough to really improve. In the context of Inkspot, the pre-eminent "thing" is writing, but the concepts that Mr. Glass discusses and Ms. Baker underlines really apply to most pursuits.

"I want to write a [novel, memoir, poem, book about...]...." When I teach workshops or participate in mixed-level writers' groups, I hear this all the time. The impulse to do something, and especially to create something, is widespread. I’d even argue that it’s a fundamental human drive, because it’s hard to find a child who isn’t eager to learn and make and do things. I would definitely argue that the creative urge plays out in more than the fields we typically think of as "creative" – writing, visual arts, dance, music, and so on. Take dog training.

My new "Animals in Focus Mystery" series focuses in each book on a different animal activity, with dog obedience in the spotlight in book one, Drop Dead on Recall. In fact, the title is a play on the name for one of the exercises in open- (mid-) level obedience competition. For more than a decade I taught obedience classes, mostly to pet owners who wanted gain some control of their dogs. Many did fine, and emerged at the end of the class with slightly improved skills for communicating with their dogs. Some were inspired to continue training, and a few of those eventually went on to compete. At each step up that ladder from "my dog is dragging me down the street" to "my dog just earned an obedience title!" there were dropouts, because I’m here to tell you that as easy as it looks when you see a well-oiled dog-and-owner team perform (like my friend Gayle Watkins and her lovely Corey, below), it took them a lot of hard work to get there.

So it goes with writing. Many people begin with an urge to write. Some have a specific project in mind – often a memoir – but some just feel they’d like to try writing and find their subject as they go. They take a class or two, or join a writers’ group, or go to a conference. It’s fun at first. Then the fun becomes more complicated. And painful. Not all criticism is "constructive," and even when it is, it’s hard to hear. Don’t even think about rejection – except if you’re serious about publishing, you’d better get used to the idea! (Ah, another topic for another day.) So like the doggy-school dropouts who don’t want to spend time teaching the things their dogs don’t learn (or obey) quickly, a lot of beginning and intermediate writers dropout when the pleasures of writing begin to bump up against disappointments and plain old hard work.

And it takes a lot of hard work to be good, much less great (at writing, at anything). Many people quit when this becomes evident. I'd say that's sad, but I'm not sure it is. I think we should try something new every so often. I encourage everyone to do so, especially anyone who teaches – take a class in an art form or a sport or a subject completely new to you. It will expand your own frame of reference, and it may lead you to a new passion. It will also remind you how hard learning is so that you’ll see what you teach from a newcomer’s perspective.

As for the quitting, I think that’s okay too. Because quitting doesn’t mean failure. It means we have successfully identified our lack of interest or skill in a particular activity. It means we can move on to try something else, or we can go back to what we already know and love. Poet Jack Gilbert wrote, "Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew....I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph."

I agree.

Thanks to Gayle Watkins and Corey (U-CD LornaDoone Encore! Encore! CDX SH MX MXJ NF WCX OD VCX CCA TT) for permission to use the video. All other photos except book cover from iStockphoto.

Sheila W. Boneham, Ph.D., is the author of the forthcoming "Animals in Focus" mystery Drop Dead on Recall (now available for pre-order) as well as award-winning books about pets including Rescue Matters! How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine, 2009), The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Cat (Alpha, 2005), and fifteen others. Sheila's books are available from your local bookseller and on line. Learn more at or on Facebook at


Shannon Baker said...

I have a friend who competes at a high level in dog obedience. I'm in awe of the time and effort it took to get her there. I'm also in awe of how well behaved her dogs are. I wouldn't say she's in awe of my writing, but she thinks it's pretty cool. Success takes the combination of hard work and passion. Nice post, Sheila.

Robin Allen said...

Excellent post, Sheila! Writing a publishable book is the hardest thing I've ever done. But I put in time every day and I make my writing behave, word by word.

Unknown said...

Thanks, ladies. Shannon, I've had 3 nationally ranked obedience dogs and hope some day for another. Competing with dogs is every bit as humbling as submitting books and articles to editors and readers! Both remind us that we can only control so much :-)

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Sheila! I really like the quote about Icarus.

Kathleen Ernst said...

I especially liked your comment about quitting. There's no shame in discovering that any particular activity isn't something you want to pursue. Nice post.

Linda Hull said...

Great post!

Lois Winston said...

Sheila, as I read your post, all I could think of was IF A MAN ANSWERS, a 1960's era movie with Sandra Dee where a woman uses a dog training book to train her husband!

Unknown said...

Lois, I'm here to tell you, dogs are easier to train, but modern techniques using food and play rewards do work on husbands. :-)