How Not to Lose

Last week, as I faced off against my ever cocky teenaged fencing opponent, it occurred to me: I was going to lose.

Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve been graced with this epiphany. I have never been the speediest turtle, nor the most coordinated.  Because I am old and crafty and gifted with decent stamina and taller than everybody under the age of 10 in class, I’ve been able to hold my own for the first few months.  But now, the little ones are improving and gunning for me.  The older teens, the ones who have the agility of Spiderman and the reflexes of Flash, have been killing me since day one.  And the middle group, the ones who make me work for my wins, are catching up.  Last week, I got skewered badly enough that my husband, who after seeing me kicked across the barn by my temperamental TB tends to be pretty blase about my daily injuries, actually noticed the bruise.

So, as I stood there staring across the blade of Mr. Teenaged Superhero, I realized I needed a new strategy, one which, even if I couldn’t win, would allow me not to lose. Preferably a strategy that did not involve being shish-kabobbed.   So no more mad dashes forward.  No more desperate attempts to land a hit. No more leaving my vulnerable side exposed as I charged across the floor.

And you know what?  It mostly kind of worked.  I emerged unscathed from my first match, and got hit only once during my second. (Granted, these were short practice sessions, not full-on matches, but I was pretty happy.) Of course, I didn’t score any points, and not getting hit sometimes involved throwing myself backward in a distinctly ungraceful way as opposed to the fluid footwork my instructor prefers, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Writing is a little bit like fencing a superhero.  It’s a business which, if we’re not careful, will stab us in the heart every time we let it.  We get a form rejection from our dream agent. The editor who bought our best friend’s book won’t even glance at ours. Our contract is for a miniscule amount, not the six-figure check we’d hoped for.  We sell a single book, not the three title series we’ve worked on for years.

If we see each setback as failure, there’s no reason to keep at it.  Instead, we need to change how we see the game.  The form rejection is a chance to hone our query until an agent can’t refuse us.  The editor who turns down our novel is telling us the writing’s just not ready and giving us a chance to improve. The small advance gives us room to grow. The single title takes the pressure off during the writing process.  If nothing else, we can focus on one chapter, one page, one sentence, on making those words as perfect as we can, one word at a time.

I don’t fence because I expect to be in the Olympics.  I do it because, even when I’m losing, it’s fun.  Or it’s supposed to be, anyhow.  It’s only when I lose sight of my goals, when I focus too much on winning, that it becomes unpleasant.  And, ironically, the more I try to win the more I leave myself open to mistakes.  So if I can just focus on enjoying the game, and on not losing, I come out ahead.  It’s the same with writing.

At the heart of things, writing is supposed to be enjoyable, and it’s far too easy to lose sight of that fact.

I’m a Penguins fan (the cartoon, not the hockey team).  And as Skipper says, “That’s not failure.  That’s redefined mission objectives.”

Happy writing.

Liz Michalski


  1. Norman on May 22, 2012 at 10:40 am

    A nice piece of writing, Liz. Thank you.

    • liz on May 22, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      Thanks, Norman.
      PS — I have bluebird eggs!!!!!

  2. Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) on May 22, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Do you find it’s easier to see the principle in non-writing work? I ask because I’ve just finished a book on entrepreneurship, and the winning-by-process philosophy came up there. It felt different coming from millionaires and billionaires who’d often defied convention to achieve their goals.

    Anyway, I’m cheering in advance for the day when you knock a cocky teenager on their butt. Triumph for my sake, Liz. 😉

    • liz on May 22, 2012 at 4:52 pm

      I think having some kind of emotional distance is the key, Jan, at least for me. If I can enjoy the process and not hang my heart around the end result, it helps. I’d love to know what book you read so I can read it too. (And I consider it a victory when HE doesn’t knock ME on my fanny!)

      • Jan O'Hara (Tartitude) on May 23, 2012 at 8:52 am

        Liz, it’s The Education of Millionaires, by Michael Ellsberg. If you read it, I’d love to know your thoughts.

        I think you’re right about the emotional distance.

  3. vaughnroycroft on May 22, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    This is just what I needed to hear today, Liz. Sort of like Ali’s Rope-a-dope strategy for writing. Bring it on, pub world. You can score some hits, knock me out of the circle, but you’re only going to tire yourself out. I cannot be defeated. Thanks!

    • liz on May 22, 2012 at 4:50 pm

      Glad this post resonated with you, Vaughn. I hope you hear good news soon!

  4. Maer Wilson on May 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks! I really enjoyed reading this. I tend toward the positive about my writing. Making that lemonade out of lemons. I keep saying that and pray it’s really optimism and not delusion. 🙂

    • liz on May 22, 2012 at 4:48 pm

      I think that’s the only way to go, Maer. It is too easy to get depressed otherwise. I’ll be optimistic along with you, how’s that?

  5. Dana Fredsti on May 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    As both a writer and someone who has done a lot of swordfighting… you might have written this just for me. I know you didn’t, but I love it when a piece connects so strongly. Thank you!

    • liz on May 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm

      Thank you so much, Dana! I’ve been writing for a long while, but I just started fencing this past fall. Feel free to leave me some tips — I could use them! : )

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