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How Do You Know It’s Not Good For You?


How Do You Know It’s Not Good For You?

Last night, novelist Lorraine Brown came to speak to my working class mentees about her journey to publication.

My mentees found her absolutely inspirational, as did I. She too is from a working class background, her parents had very ordinary jobs: her mum was a care assistant, her dad a welder. Sometimes, in what can seem to be the privileged world of book publishing, it’s easy to feel excluded, particularly when you read interviews with authors who talk about their private educations and their bookish families, when some of us were growing up just trying not to get into fights on council estates.

A few members of my mentoring group and guest author, Lorraine Brown (bottom right)

Like so many of us, the story of how Lorraine came to publish her debut novel, The Paris Connection, was not told in a straight line, but a very wiggly one. It involved a draft of a novel that ended up abandoned, it involved ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ rejections from agents, it involved hard work, lots of graft, re-drafts, problem solving, multiple trips back to the drawing board, and eventually an offer of representation and book deals all over the world. Hers is a real success story, and I’m so pleased she came to share it with my mentees.

One thing that struck me was the amount of setbacks Lorraine had suffered, yet she had learnt from each and every one of them, trying to figure out at each stage what she needed to do next to take her book to the next level. She learnt from rejections rather than let them bruise her, and I emphasised this to my mentees, that these setbacks are simply that, moments in time that offer you an opportunity for a rethink, not the end of the world. They are simply a slice of your bigger story of writing.

It reminded me of a Chinese parable that I turn to when life feels a little overwhelming, and it feels fitting to share it now as we have just celebrated the arrival of the Year of the Tiger. It is the story of The Old Man and The Horse, and it goes a little like this…

An old man lived with his son and his horse. She was a beautiful, white mare, one he could sell for a fortune, and so his neighbours never understood why he kept her.

One night, there was a storm, and the horse bolted from the stable. The next day, his neighbours came to him saying how sorry they were for him, what a disaster it was. ‘Quit with your catastrophising,’ he told them. ‘It is true that my horse has disappeared from the stable and right now, that is all we know, the rest is pure judgment. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, we shall see.’

A week past, and one morning the old man awoke to find his beloved mare had returned. Not only that but she had brought with her a whole herd of wild horses. His neighbours returned, lavishing congratulations on him, telling him that now he would be rich beyond his wildest dreams. ‘Quit with your good wishes,’ said the old man. ‘It is true that my horse has returned with others, but this is all we know for now, the rest is pure judgment. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, we shall see.’

The next day his son went out to train the horses, but he suffered a terrible accident and was flung from one of them breaking both of his legs. The neighbours quickly came to console the old man, telling him what bad luck had befallen him. ‘Have you learnt nothing yet?’ the old man told them. ‘It is true that my son has broken his legs, but that’s all we know for sure, it is just a fragment of the story in its entirety, anything else is pure judgment. Whether this is a curse or a blessing, we shall see.’

The Old Man and The Horse

A week later, a war broke out in their country, and all the fit, young men were called to fight and certain death. Everyone except the old man’s son, who was incapable of serving his country. The old man’s neighbours sent off their sons to war, and then gathered at the old man’s house, telling him how lucky he was that his son would live and theirs would surely die. Again, the old man stopped them: ‘How do you know that this is good fortune?’ he said. ‘It is true that my son cannot go to war, but that is all we know right now, the rest is pure judgment. Whether this is good or bad, we shall see.’

Two weeks went by and the country won the war, all the villagers’ sons returned and not only that but the Emperor rewarded the soldiers who had fought with enough gold to live comfortably for the rest of their lives… well, I won’t repeat myself, but you can imagine what the old man said when his neighbours turned up at his house again.

There are many versions of this story, and some go on much longer, but the point of it is that whatever we see today, good or bad, is only that, one slice of the total story, just a fragment, whether it will be a blessing or a curse for us in the long run, we’ve yet to know.

You can apply this to any area of your life. They have a saying in China when something bad happens: How do you know it’s not good for you?

If Lorraine’s first book was accepted, perhaps it wouldn’t have been the success that her second book has been. The rejections may have seemed bad at the time, but they were just a fragment of her story as a whole, perhaps they were the best thing that happened to her, because she wrote a different book that brought her greater success. And that goes for all of us in our writing journeys, or in our personal lives.

When you are next catastrophising about your work in progress (or even the state of our current government) maybe keep in mind the story of The Old Man and The Horse. Because what we see now, from this vantage point, is just a fragment of a greater story. Everything else, as the old man said, is just pure judgment.

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