By Jilly Gagnon
I’ll admit it: I was one of those “where’s my gold star?” kind of kids.
Part of it is probably generational—though I’m on the old side, I’m a Millenial both demographically and, in ways I don’t always like to admit, by temperament—but part of it was simply innate to me. If you set a finish line, I’d want to not only race towards it, but race there the fastest, most efficiently, best.
Metaphorically, of course. I’ve always been terrible at sports.
But I knew going in (at least in the abstract) that choosing a career in writing was setting myself up for a path without regular, easily obtained gold stars. There wasn’t a promotion at the end of the tunnel for working longer hours, or a pay raise if you went the extra mile on your project.
And I also knew that the few gold stars that did exist—placing a piece with an outlet you love, getting agented, getting a book publish—were as much about luck and timing as they were about talent. Considering my wiring, that should have been a flashing red warning sign, but my whole life, I’d been fed the “you can be anything you want” Koolaid of my generation. I figured that the same qualities that had served me so far—ambition, drive, at least some amount of talent—would be enough to get me to the finish line sooner than later.
That’s not how it works in publishing. I learned that lesson very, very quickly.
And relearned it year after year. Small successes would accrue, inch by inch, but it was hard to feel like I was achieving everything I was capable of when friends were steadily rising the ranks, continuing on the well-laid plan towards codified success, and I was still trying to convince them of the importance of getting an essay accepted by an online outlet that sure, they may not have heard of, but I swear, it’s respected. Which is why it’s fine that it doesn’t pay well…or at all.
But as with anything, in publishing persistence (along with a good dose of “willingness to listen to criticism”) can pay off. Last month, the second book in my CHOOSE YOUR OWN MISERY dark comedy series hit the shelves. In February my young adult debut, #famous will do the same. It may have taken me longer than most of my friends, but finally, after years of work, and heartache, and self-doubt, I’ve gotten a few of those coveted gold stars.
And you know what?
There’s still no path. And there has never been a finish line.
If my journey to publication has taught me anything, it’s that this is a career that is all journey. There are lots of exciting spots you can stop off at—the places you see your name in print, the “yeses” from editors you so hoped loved you back, etc. etc.—but in a fundamental way, these beautiful way stations don’t lead to one another.
I still get rejection emails all the time, for everything from short magazine pieces to manuscripts I’d been deeply, almost painfully, invested in. Gold stars used to be the point; it’s taken me a decade to fully appreciate that even the shiniest of them are just points along the way.
But instead of letting that discourage me, I count it as one of the best things about the life I’ve chosen.
Yes, at any point I might face another painful setback. Just when I think I’ve figured something out, that I’m on the right path, finally, I might realize it’s full of potholes—the same potholes I thought I’d left behind me years ago.
…but that also means that no one setback is the end of the line. It’s just a bump in a road that has no final destination, no “you’ve reached the end.” It’s scary, but also strangely reassuring.
So keep racing towards the finish line, and pushing yourself harder, and reaching for the gold stars.
And know that if you can’t seem to snag one now, it might be just around the next turn in the road.
Born in Minnesota, a.k.a. “The Canada of the United States,” JILLY GAGNON has always preferred her adventures in book form…and preferably not that adventurous. The consummate “indoor kid,” Jilly always knew she was destined for the one career that sounds risky but never forces you to travel anywhere more terrifying than a Wiki-wormhole: writing.
In the past, Jilly has written humor, news, essays, and op-ed pieces for Newsweek, Elle, Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Onion, The Toast, and Boston’s alt-weekly, The Dig, among others. Her debut young adult novel, #famous, is forthcoming from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen in 2017.
Jilly graduated from Harvard University in 2006, and currently lives in Chicago. She often carries on far-too-involved conversations with her cats.