Friday, December 12, 2014

Ramblings On Being In The Game

from Jacqueline

I remember the excitement I felt when I knew I’d found an agent to represent my novel, MAISIE DOBBS – but it was an excitement tempered with a degree of reality.  Landing an agent was no indicator of actually finding a publisher.  “Don’t worry,” said my husband, whatever happens, you’ve got an agent – you’re in the game.” He’d said the same thing when I started the novel, and when I finished the manuscript – “You’re in the game.”

I might not have been a seasoned player, more of a substitute brought out at the last minute – but it was a good feeling to be on the field and in the game.    Events moved on apace and soon there was a publisher or two interested, and I reminded myself that, however it went down, I was in the game.  Finally,  one stood out above the others, and I signed the contract. 

Maisie Dobbs was published the following year and I could not have wished for a better outcome – I had some great breaks and a few home runs, as you might say.  In time I was asked about a second book, and even though I had an idea, I was really, really worried. Would I ever be able to write another novel?  “Just get going and write your story,” counseled my husband.  “You’ve nothing to lose - you’re in the game.”  Indeed, I had put myself in the game many years before, when I decided to do something about becoming a professional writer.

I think the reason why being “in the game” really resonates with me, is that it was always the underlying lesson before me from childhood onwards.  My parents were far from wealthy people (really far from wealthy) but there was always a sense that in trying you were achieving something – that you could play the game as well as someone with the best boots and kit.  You just had to swallow your pride or fear, or whatever was holding you back, and you had to go for it – and you didn’t have to wait for anyone else’s starting gun.  It was your responsibility to make the move. 

I love reading stories about people who have made that leap, who have joined the game when being on the field seems far away, and the journey is one of endurance and faith – my leap to being a published author pales beside the stories of others who have just gone out and made the dreams of their heart come true.  Here’s a few that spring to mind (out of many I could have chosen).

I’ve written about Yali Derman before, a survivor of childhood leukemia who decided she would find a way to give something back to the hospital where she spent most of her time while in treatment.  She designed the “Carry On” bag, which is now sold to raise funds for the hospital and inspires people to “carry on” in the face of adversity.  And the latest news?  She is now a RN specializing in children’s oncology, working in the same department where her life was saved so many years ago. Yali was thrown into a dreadful game as a child – and then changed the rules with her generous and creative spirit.

Here’s another – I believe he was featured on 60 Minutes some years ago.  Robert Howard Allen, a Tennesee poet and teacher, had not set foot in a school until he was 32, because he was living with older relatives who didn't want to send him out to be educated. He taught himself to read with comic books, then he moved on to the family bible.  It was a librarian named Pearl Harder who broadened his world.  I have great respect for librarians, and this one helped bring him off the sidelines and into the game.  In the interests of brevity (something I am not famous for), I will just add that Allen gained his Ph.D at Vanderbilt University.   What fortitude that man has – and I thought writing a novel was hard! Shame on me.

A couple of years ago I read about a young girl in the UK named Shelby Holmes.  Shelby gained outstanding results in her “A” levels (exams you take at the end of high school), and as a result won a place to study at Oxford University’s Trinity College, one of the world's most prestigious seats of higher learning.  Nothing mind-blowing about that story, except that Shelby had to work really hard and not always in perfect circumstances to achieve her goal – for she comes from a gypsy family, travelers who go from place to place with the fun fair.  Her family were behind her, but she still had to pay her way – and on the day she received news of her acceptance, there was no big party, for Shelby had to work the fair.  It should be noted that many gypsy children never make it through any level of schooling, and moving onto higher education is another game altogether; Shelby’s an inspiration for them.

I wish I could remember the names of those three African American young men who challenged each other, from boyhood, to achieve more than was expected of them – they really went for the game in a big way.

There are a couple of names I’ll mention here, only because I was at school with both of them – and funny that these two really put themselves in the game.  The first, a name perhaps not immediately recognizable, is Piers Sellers.  From his early teens, having watched TV coverage of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, he had a dream of becoming an astronaut. You don’t get many astronauts in Britain, given the lack of space programs, and if you’d told the school careers advisor that you wanted to be an astronaut, you'd have been brought down to earth with a thump.  Piers Sellers became a scientist and later, an American - he is a veteran of three space shuttles, logging more time on space walks than any other NASA astronaut.  I remember him as the teen who gained his pilot’s license before most of us had our driver’s license, because he loved to fly - and was nailed for “buzzing” the school in a light aircraft.

That really is him, up there ...

The second is a guy named Tim Smit (actually, Tim Smit now has a knighthood, so it’s Sir Tim), who was a good friend in high school.  He founded two of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions – The Lost Gardens of Heligon, and The Eden Project, which is also at the forefront of environmental advocacy.  Clearly Tim took an earlier game to another level - I always remember his interest in a particularly fragrant variety of herb; you could smell it a mile off!

The people here have all been in the news, one way or another, but finding the inspiration to get into whatever game catches your attention often begins closer to home.  My mother had to leave school at 14, and was denied the opportunity to take up the scholarship she’d won to a top girls’ school in London.  Immediately after her 14th birthday, her mother took her to the laundry where she was to begin working.  But that evening, her hands raw, she walked along the road and signed up for night classes in subjects she knew would get her a better job.  By the time I was 15 she was working for the civil service, in a role usually reserved for graduates.  At age 48 or thereabouts, she went back to night classes – to prove to herself that she could do what her kids had done, though we certainly had no doubts about her ability.

My dad was plucked out of school at age 13 by the air raid patrol, who went to London schools looking for the fastest sprinters to be “runners” throughout the bombings. Dad was one of the fastest.  But here’s what my Dad loved beyond anything – the stars and astronomy.  He had a telescope at home to watch the goings on in the universe, and on walks he would point out the different constellations.  He taught us how to find our bearings in the night sky. “Look for your north star,” he would say. “If you can find your north star, you can find your whole universe.”

I would add to that, “And then you’re in the game.”

So, what game do you want to get into?  Are you inspired by Our Jim’s weekly posts about writing and getting published?  Or perhaps something else you won’t tell anyone about.  Now’s the time to make your move, to get into the game, even in a small way.  Life’s too short to do otherwise.  I’ll  close with one of my favorite passages:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:  “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!” (W.H. Murray, The Scottish Himalayan Expedition)

I’m flying to the UK on Monday for the Christmas Holiday, so I may not post for the next couple of weeks.  In the meantime, may you be blessed this Holiday Season, with the gifts that count – beloved family, dear friends, fine health and good cheer. 

(And that's Rye in Sussex, where I will be)


  1. James O. Born12/12/2014 4:24 AM

    I was feeling pretty proud of being up and working before six this morning. Now you've put it in perspective.

    Great post.


  2. from Jacqueline: Jim, it's getting up before six and working that proves you're in the game - and you know very well it takes endurance, and a knowledge that sometimes the most significant leaps are very small ones.

  3. Here's another of my favorite quotes from Teddy Roosevelt:

    "It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly...who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never known either victory nor defeat."

    In other words, those who are in the game.

  4. from Jacqueline: I shall keep this one close to hand, Patty - thank you! When I read this I thought of my little sojourn with Oliver this morning - he's going to a friend's ranch soon, to enjoy being a horse in early semi retirement (I knew I could not part with him, and he's too strong for me now). Thinking of that moment with my face being "marred by dust and sweat and blood" when I had the accident, I told my big black horse that it wasn't his fault, that he held on for as long as he could before he ran, and that I would never blame him - we were out there in the game. All is healing in many ways. No timid souls around here!

  5. Jacqueline, thank you for sharing many wonderful stories about inspiring people, including your parents. I am happy to hear that your recovery went well enough for you to be able to travel back to the UK for Christmas. You will have a white Christmas in the UK.

    Happy Christmas and Happy New Year,

  6. from Jacqueline: Thanks for your comment, Diana - and yes, I think it will be a white Christmas - brrrr!!! My California bones might not be up to it. I'm not sure I am really mended enough to travel, but I am sure all will be well - I'll have to collar some big strong guys to help me with my bags at the airport!