My wife Amy is a yoga teacher with a passion for meditation and mindfulness. Last weekend, she told me a Taoist folktale she used in one of her classes.
An elderly farmer’s horse ran away. When his commiserating neighbors said, “Oh, what bad luck!” the farmer replied, “What makes you so sure it’s so bad?” Soon the horse returned with a beautiful wild stallion. The neighbors said, “Wow, what good luck!” The farmer replied, “What makes you so sure it’s good?” The farmer’s youngest son tried to ride the stallion but got bucked and broke his foot. “What bad luck!” the neighbors said. Again, the farmer’s reaction was, “What makes you so sure it’s bad?” The military came around drafting all the young men in the village. The farmer’s sons were taken, all except the youngest who had the broken foot. “What good luck!” the neighbors declared. And still the farmer said, “What makes you so sure it’s good?”
How quick we often are to decide events are “good” or “bad.” Every writer’s life is full of ups and downs (just as everybody’s life is). Not long after I got my first book deal (a wonderful 3-book deal for the Clockwork Dark series back in 2007), my wife gave birth to our daughter. I was terrified how I was going to juggle full-time teaching, fulfilling my book contract on Random House’s rapid schedule, and having time to be a parent. To make matters worse, my wife began a difficult episode of post-partum depression. Bad luck, one might think. We decided it would be in our family’s best interest to tighten our financial belts and for me to leave teaching. That allowed us an amazing period where I was able to write full-time as well as be at home with family during my daughter’s early years. I wouldn’t have made that choice if Amy hadn’t had post-partum depression.
Even seeming good luck has its consequences. While that wonderful 3-book deal was a dream and kept me at home, it came with a lot of pressure—not only for me but for the books! There are so many examples of good or bad luck that isn’t quite so simple. I’ve tried to adjust how I react to bad reviews or flattering awards, under-attended book readings or thrilling keynote talks at conferences and festivals. My mindfulness coach and wife Amy has helped me to not assume whether situations are good or bad.
This advice has carried over to my storytelling craft.
I’ve grown to see plot as the events that transform a character. The main character of a novel might view the villain as the “bad luck” in his or her life. However, from the omnipotent standpoint as the author, I see the villain and all the conflict of the story as the life-changing situation that will transform the humble protagonist into a hero. The antagonist is the pressure that will change that coal into a diamond.
Luck—whether good or bad—is just the stuff that’s out of our control. What really matters is how we choose to respond to those twists that life offers. It’s what makes us the heroes of our own stories.