Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Competent Enough to Compete: Lessons Learned from Competitive Piano Performance

When I was eleven, I decided I wanted to learn how to properly play the piano. My mother had already showed me the basics of how to read music and I could fumble out a few things with right and left hand parts, but I wanted to learn classical music. So, my mother canceled our cable subscription to pay for piano lessons and signed me up with a teacher down at the local conservatory.

Because I had a head start on the basics I progressed quickly. After the first year my teacher suggested I compete in the local music teachers competition. The first year, she said, I would be only competing against myself. If I enjoyed it and wanted to continue the following year, we would see about putting me in the category where I would compete with everyone my own age.

Despite the nerves, I did, in fact, enjoy competing. Not so much for the competition factor, but because the real joy of music, like writing, is in sharing it with someone else. Sure, I enjoyed playing at home and getting lost in the fiddly, rolling-down-a-steep-hill harmonies of Bach's Inventions. But the real enjoyment, the biggest rush was in performing for someone else. Especially in performing for strangers who would appreciate the music without regard for me.

So, after two years of competing only against myself, I entered the local competition along with everyone else in my grade level. This was a challenge. Many of them had been playing much longer than I had. And let me tell you, six years of additional experience makes a big difference - in both the quality and complexity of the work being presented. My teacher and I carefully selected work that pushed my skills and showed off my range. For the remaining five years before I headed off to college, I competed at my grade level. Every year I placed high enough to continue on to the state level. Every year I received good marks at the state level, but I never won or progressed to the regional competition.

I was competent enough to compete. I was not skilled enough to win.

"Why this story?" you may be thinking.

Lately the SF/F realm has been rife with conspiracy theories about secret "liberal" cabals, active bloc-voting by particular "conservative" groups to narrow the playing field to works which they approved and endorsed, and then rejection of those works by a broader fan base. At this point it seems as if the attempts to put forth a complete slate will continue next year. Which also means more bitterness and vitriol and finding out that folks who have been positive about your work in the past didn't really mean "This is good," but rather "This is good for a girl-writer."

And much of it stems from the inability to grasp the idea that you may be competent enough to compete, but not competent enough to win. It is laden with fear about a broadening of the pool of talent to include voices that may not be just different but also better. It is laced with venom over the idea that fandom is bigger than you are, bigger than your group of friends, and in that larger sea you are a smaller fish than you thought. And all of it is wrapped up in an "us against them" narrative that transforms that fear and poison and lack of understanding into a conspiracy against some deeper way of life - the "culture wars" we keep hearing about.

This, more than anything else, is the reason I have no patience for the Puppies (Sad or Rabid) and their movement to "reclaim" SF/F for future generations.

At some point, you have to realize that maybe your work just isn't better than your competitors. And at that point you (and I), have two basic choices.

You can:
Accuse the judges of favoring the Asian-American over you because of a hidden affirmative action agenda.
Declare that the other contestants played newer, more modern work and were rewarded for it while your own more traditional selections were passed over because they are no longer en vogue.
Orchestrate and implement a plan to only allow those who play at your skill level to compete. Bonus if you can limit the works to the same style and content you perform.

Or you can:
Improve your skills.
Work harder.
Be persistent.

"Well," you may be thinking. "You only say that because you've never been nominated for a literary award."

And that's true. I haven't been nominated. I've been eligible since 2012. In fact, 2012-2013 I was eligible for the John Campbell "Not a Hugo" Award for Best New Writer. Those years came and went without any sort of recognition for my work. Aside from, you know, having been published, getting paid, and knowing that folks were reading my work. But even if I had been nominated, I learned years ago that sometimes my very best is not "the best".

I'm okay with that. You know why?
Because, for me, the answer is simple - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time I sit down to put words on the page - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time I see someone belittling my genre - write a better story.
It's the thing I say to myself every time someone implies that even if I were to be nominated it would be for something other than the quality of my work - write a better story.

Because there is only one way to compete - write a better story.

[Disclaimer (because, you know, ethics in journalism): I have been published by two of the Puppies nominees - Abyss & Apex, and Jennifer Brozek. And I split a reading time slot with Jason Cordova last year.]

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