Over the spring, I began physical therapy to correct some hip pain that was preventing me from practicing yoga, and my single, overbearing thought was: What are my chances of a full recovery through therapy alone?
Each week, my physical therapist focused on having me do hip-strengthening exercises and increasing the level of difficulty. Although unfailingly cheerful and positive, she didn’t give any kind of qualitative or quantitative reassurance, e.g., “I see people like you recover fully all the time!” or “More than 75% of people with this condition will improve within six months of therapy.”
Eventually, by the third or fourth week of therapy, I couldn’t help myself, and I asked the question that I knew was unfair, even if I did preface it with an “out” for the therapist: “I know every person is different,” I began, “but how likely is it that I can make a full recovery without surgery?”
Basically, I wanted to be ranked on scale. Tell me, Ms. Therapist, based on the many hundreds or thousands of patients you’ve seen, where do I fall on the spectrum? Give it to me straight, I want access to your years of experience and I know you can grade me.
But she can’t—not honestly—without making a string of assumptions about me. I know it from working with writers, who ask me to rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 all the time—in terms of their idea or writing quality, the likelihood of publication, and even talent. It’s the question I dislike the most and that I try to avoid answering. It lays a terrible burden on me because what’s being asked is: Tell me my worth. Tell me if I should continue. Is my situation hopeless?
If I say you’re a 1, you’ll be discouraged and maybe give up. Such a ranking may lead you to completely disregard your own agency—your own attitudes, responsibility and discipline—as important factors, all qualities that can turn you into a 10 over time. Maybe the project you’re working on now is hopeless, but the next one is destined for greatness.
If I say you’re a 10, you may feel good about yourself and encouraged to redouble your efforts—and then later on, if you aren’t really a 10, you’ll likely encounter frustration, rejection, and other problems that may lead you to feel bitter or resentful when you’re not treated in the way you expect.
I don’t know how to rank most writers because I can’t say how well prepared you are to overcome the difficulties in the writing life. Your motivation or purpose for writing matters, as well as whatever distractions or obligations are pressing down on you. Plus everyone has potential to improve, to have moments of epiphany, to transform from a writer who’s going nowhere to a writer who is inspired or lucky or both.
My therapist had the smallest of windows into my life. She didn’t know the history of my body and what I’ve put it through (or might put it through in the future), and how hard I might work at healing myself. Maybe I will fully recover, and maybe I won’t—a lot of the story was written before I ever arrived in her office—and my outlook largely remains in my hands, not hers.
But I still understand the impulse, the emotional need behind the ranking question. At times we’re desperate to know: what’s my status in this game? How good do I look? It’s just that no matter what answer we’re given, it is unlikely to satisfy or last longer than the next moment of doubt or failure on the horizon.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.