If at First You Don't Succeed

There’s a saying in skydiving that goes, “If it first you don’t succeed, skydiving isn’t for you.”

My preferred method for prepping for a jump. Ft. Benning, 1996.

My preferred method for prepping for a jump. Ft. Benning, 1996.

Fortunately, I was successful on my first jump, and all those that followed (with a few minor injuries and close calls, but those are other stories), and I’m extremely glad to find that that streak of luck has carried through to some of my other ventures. Most of you already know that I won a writing contest for my first novel, but the thing that is really extraordinary to me is that, not only was it my first novel, but also the first writing contest I’ve entered. There was this short story that I wrote in 2nd grade and won a contest for, but the difference is I didn’t even know it would be in a contest, so…I guess that means my first timer’s success still holds true.

But the thing that I really want to talk about is something totally different. While this was one of the best weekends of my life, there is an altogether more subtle event that contributed to how terrific it was. And that, dear readers, is the success of overcoming my biggest fear.

When I was in the army, I was on a few jumps where I started to get a little nervous. I don’t know why, we were only jumping WWII-design chutes at 500 feet above the deck in the middle of the night with 100 lbs of gear hanging from us. Nothing to worry about there–especially if you didn’t know that it takes 250 feet for a reserve to fully deploy once pulled, and you usually don’t realize you need to pull it until you’ve already fallen 300-500 feet. You can do the math.

So, yeah, sometimes I started to get a little worried, just a little wet on the palms with the sense that if I didn’t blink, my eyes would soon dry out. But I didn’t want to blink because things could really go wrong in that short span of time and I needed to be prepared for anything. That gut-churning worry that things are about to terribly, irrevocably wrong.

Then something really strange would happen.

I’d look around at the other 60-100 GIs with me and realize that I wasn’t nearly as scared as about half of them. I once had my own company commander throw up right in front of me and every jumper had to walk around that on their way out the door. This was supposed to be a hard core guy. When I got a good look at that fear in others, a strange and monumentally welcome sense of calm would overcome me. I’d get that zen feeling that whatever was going to happen was just going to happen, and being ready to jump out of my skin at the sight of the little red light over the door turning green would do nothing to change that. It was kind of that hippy “go with the flow” sensation, and I would get completely chill. Almost relaxed. This bizarre psychological reaction got me through some very tense moments.

And that’s what happened to me this weekend. The biggest fear I’ve ever had was having to confront a real-life literary agent and try to sell my book. It’s so counter to my every fiber to talk about my writing–to baer my soul, in a manner of speaking. But at the conference, I did it.

Imagine if you will, hundreds of writers all convened in a swanky hotel, all with words that have poured from their subconscious in a relentless, uncontrollable flow, all eager to be recognized for their unique brilliance and have their talent validated. Now imagine the most introverted, self-conscious, retiring person you know. Overlay them onto this eager writer, and you have the bulk of people that attend writing conferences. We are a quiet lot, but an intense lot.

Then take me: a total basket-case, spending hours and hours trying to write a pitch that will be, if not be the most exciting thing an agent has ever heard, at least have enough pauses for breathing when recited that I won’t pass out for lack of oxygen. Then imagine me realizing, 40 minutes before the pitch, that it’s all wrong, that it’s completely inane and bland, and that I must start over. Imagine, if you will, trying to force yourself to do the thing that you would sooner throw yourself into a burning cauldron of oil than do. Then imagine yourself doing it.

But the skydiving thing happened. Ten minutes before my appointment, I joined another group of new authors about to do the same thing in the waiting room. You want to talk about a bundle of nerves; many of my fellows were like OJ Simpson right before the jury came back. Shaking legs, clenched jaws, thousand yard stares. Suddenly, that same sense of calm came over me. The knowledge that I was not going to die, and even if I were, my last few moments were definitely not as agony-filled as these poor folks. I took a deep breath, and killed the last few minutes checking my email on my iPhone.

And the big surprise, the thing I least expected: it wasn’t in the slightest bit scary. It was easy, it was mellow, it was a natural conversation that occurs between two people with common interests. It was no more of a big deal than ordering a meal at a restaurant.

Nothing feels better than a sigh of relief, and I took a huge one in the middle of my pitch session, and another one afterwards. The biggest fear of my life has passed and I have come through unscathed, stronger, more prepared than ever. It’s ridiculous, but facing the business-side of writing is my last big, dreaded hurdle to becoming an author. Now that it’s over, I can’t imagine anything that can slow me down.

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All content copyright unless otherwise specified © 2008-2013 by Tammy Salyer, writer. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to use short quotes provided proper attribution is given.