At traveling fairs in the nineteenth century, “if you missed the prize at a carnival game, the carnie folk would shout, ‘Close! But no cigar!’”
They used to give out cigars as prizes, so I assume the games weren’t always for kids. Not sure when that changed but I remember my first carnie game — and my first cigar, as a matter of fact.
I’d gone to the Ottawa SuperEx with my mom one summer when I was about five. It was one of those pop-up fairs with games and rides, where you bought a reel of tickets and spent them by the fistful. I don’t recall the rides that day, but I’ll never forget the ladder climb.
My mom watched me from the ground as I crawled over the rungs to reach the top. You had to touch the other end to get the prize, and I was killing it. Taking it step by step, hands then feet. I was confident. I was cocky. I was almost there. One good stretch and I’d tag the top.
The ladder rolled and I dropped off.
I hadn’t changed my strategy. I’d been steady. I’d kept my eye on the peak. Nothing could’ve broken my concentration. From rung to rung, I’d advanced.
I came away from the game sobered by the knowledge the man running it had been holding the ladder for me. He let go when I almost reached the peak.
I can’t decide whether his assistance was actually to my advantage. I was mostly all there, but not quite. Was getting close better than losing from the start?
I was listening to an ologies podcast recently on Eudemonology. (That’s happiness in clinical terms.) Dr. Laurie Santos explained an experiment about this very thing. About the Almost that haunts us.
The study looked at Olympic medalists. They discovered that most silver medalists expressed negative feelings when they received their award. They showed misery, anger, and sadness. But the bronze medalists mirrored the winners. They expressed elation, to show their satisfaction at placing.
Bronze put her competition in perspective. She was grateful for making the cut. Bronze was fast enough, had stretched enough, had racked up enough points. Bronze didn’t care about Gold or Silver. Bronze only cared she’d done enough to stand on the podium. Her viewpoint was the sea of competitors behind her. Gold beat Silver, but Bronze beat everyone else.
Silver, however, missed out.
Winning silver equated to the Almost. If only a little more time, a bit more stretch, a few more points. Silver could only see the one reference point in front of her: Gold. Silver got close, and nothing else mattered.
Almost crushes aspiration. It’s tough to shake.
If I’d made it to the end of the ladder that day, my whole life might’ve been different. My perspective could’ve changed. Almost wracked me at a young age instead, and it’s dogged me ever since.
That’s never been more evident than with The Broken Things We knew, a manuscript I sent out for representation. Some twenty literary agents requested it, and each one passed for different reasons. “This was a tough decision,” many of them confessed. “I think your writing’s gorgeous,” one wrote, and another: “Your writing is phenomenal, your skill as a storyteller immense.”
Close, but no cigar! they all declared in unison.
And so the infamous Almost strikes again. This time it crippled me. After a decade of writing novel after novel, I stopped writing. I never thought I’d stop. I didn’t think it was possible. It has defined me in ways. Satisfied me in others. Brought me much joy. It has saved me, too.
But missing out – being so close – has paralyzed me. It’s been a year since I started a manuscript. This is the first bit of writing I’ve done since the last rejection hit my inbox. This is it. It’s almost — nearly all — I’ve left in me.
But it’s a spark. And maybe, just maybe, it’s enough to light a cigar.
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