When the writer Caroline Paul was young, she wanted to be an Olympic athlete. Problem was, she says, she wasn’t amazingly gifted. So she picked a sport that didn’t have much competition: the luge.
At the recent Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest, Romania, Paul told a funny story about her disastrous attempt to be a star in the luge world (where her nickname was “Crash”). She said she came in last in the National Championships, but so what? She was still the 11th-ranked female luger in the country.
Paul, a novelist and nonfiction author who spent 13 years as a San Francisco firefighter, said that failure taught her a couple key things that she’s used in writing since.
“First, I learned something the hard way and remembered that experience when I was writing books,” she said at the annual conference, whose theme this year was Dare to Wander. “Maybe because adventures are simply stories in action and they provided me with many of the tools that I use as an author.”
But I think we can all learn, especially, from the second thing: It taught Paul, who had a bestseller with the offbeat memoir “Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology,” to find her niche.
“I knew when I first started out … that there were so many amazing writers who can do all those things so much better than me,” she said. “So I knew that my only chance to glory was not to compete with my fellow authors, but to find the place where no one else was.”
Or, as the quote that launched a million Etsy inspirational posters goes: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
The full text of Paul’s talk at the conference is here. But I collected (sorry, “curated”) some highlights.
On what her disastrous attempt at luge taught her:
There are many, many lessons in this story. But I want to apply one in particular to my writing life. In fact, I did this with many of my adventures. I learned something the hard way and remembered that experience when I was writing books. Maybe because adventures are simply stories in action and they provided me with many of the tools that I use as an author. I heard someone define a dramatic narrative as “anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” And that exactly describes adventure.
On finding your niche (like, say, luge):
Find your niche. I know that there are many important things to being a writer: writing a beautiful sentence is the one most people think of; there’s also finding a good story, knowing how to research, knowing how to interview. And frankly, I knew when I first started out determined to publish a book and I know now that there were so many amazing writers who can do all those things so much better than me. So I knew that my only chance to glory was not to compete with my fellow authors, but to find the place where no one else was.
On her first published book, “Fighting Fire”:
My publishing experience was a dream. Sometimes I hate to speak about it to new writers because it was unlike most people’s experience of writing. I had very few bad chapters written and then I quickly found an agent and I was told how to go through the writing process to a better version of those bad chapters. And then I was quickly picked up by a New York publisher. And then I was heavily edited by a great editor. And with a lot of her help I produced a pretty darn good book and I got a lot of attention. And it wasn’t because I was the best writer in the world. Not at all. It was because I had found a story that no one else could tell.
On the importance of finding a niche you actually like:
Make sure you find that space to occupy that really resonates with you. And then hold on tightly with your fingertips until you cross the finish line.
On the importance of finding a good writing support group (whose members include Ethan Canin):
In my writing life I have made sure that I have really good adventure buddies. Specifically, I belong to a writing community. We call ourselves the Grotto. Without the Grotto, I could honestly tell you that I would not have published any of the four books that I have published today. The writing life is dark, there’s lots of bumping into walls and losing your way, and many people will not believe in you. But the Grotto has never left me on the stairs and it accompanied me all the way through the smoke, through the fire.
On the power of a group:
The thing about being a writer in the U.S.A. is that we all know that we can write for free at home or at a cafe. We’re willing to pay rent in order to be in proximity with other writers because there is a great power in a group of narratives artists. Some of it seems practical, some of it seems quite magical.
On finding people with the same narrative vision:
People come to us a lot and ask us how they can start a Grotto-like community. We offer advice on how to do that. One woman came up to me and said she want to start one in Chicago. She wanted to get every creative art under one roof. And I actually suggested to her to find people with the same narrative vision, storytellers, because in that way you can all help each other. There’s a certain energy, I think, an inner change of ideas and inspiration when you’re all sort of heading towards the same fire.
On the power of resilience:
One last lesson from my adventures, and it’s a pretty obvious one. It’s resilience. The ability to pick yourself up after a failure and go forward.