On choosing

The other day, I was complaining to a friend of mine that the problem with being a neurotic writer is that neurotics hate uncertainty – we’d rather hear “no” than “I don’t know yet” – and writers live in a constant state of uncertainty. You send your book or your pitch or your proposal out into the world, and days, weeks or months later you might hear back. Or you might not. You don’t know if your email or your snail mail was received, if the right person received it, if your ideas are under consideration or taking up residence in the circular file.

In the past few months, I’ve followed up on a couple of projects that have been out with various editors for more than 30 days. In one case, the editor was interested in the project but was getting someone else to take a look, which was good news. In another case, the editor rejected the material but hadn’t bothered informing me. In yet another case, the follow-up was ignored just as the original contact was. So it’s impossible to know when you’re waiting what anything means: it could be good news or bad news or who knows? news.

What does this have to do with making choices? Obviously, we can, to some extent, choose how we’re going to respond to events. A rejection can leave you curled up on the bed whimpering, or it can be some feedback that you consider while you send your work on to the next person on your list. (I’ve responded both ways and I like the second way better, I just don’t always choose it). But in addition to choosing how we respond to events, we can also choose how we frame the event in the first place. In other words, a rose by any other name is *not* a rose (sorry, Bill).

This came home to me when I was doing my afore-mentioned complaining. “I can’t stand it,” I wailed to my friend. “I hate uncertainty and I’m in the one profession in the world where the only thing I can count on is uncertainty. Will my royalty check come on time, will I sell the next proposal, will the editor who loved my last three essays love this one, too? Will I ever have another book idea, will my coaching clients find my feedback useful or will they say mean things about me to all their friends? I dwell in uncertainty!” (I get a little worked up over things on occasion.)

I paused long enough to catch my breath and then a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem floated into my brain (I can’t help it, I’m a former English major. When it’s not Emily Dickinson, it’s an Anglo-Saxon scōp or Andrew Marvell.) “I dwell in Possibility,” she wrote. And I thought, “That’s it! That’s how I need to think about my life and my career. It’s not uncertainty, it’s possibility!” And remarkably, that thought cheered me right up. Now whenever I start to feel a little anxious, I try to frame my feeling as excitement over possibilities rather than apprehension over potential failures.

Your assignment: Look up Dickinson’s #657 and spread wide your narrow hands to gather Paradise.

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