On Writing: Why Failure Won’t Make Me Stop


Unsolicited Opinions / Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Somehow, I haven’t abandoned writing.

I’ve never been published, and probably never will be. I’ve never made money off a piece of writing, and I don’t necessarily expect to. Not trying to be nonchalant about my failure. On the contrary, each rejection is a poisoned barb in my squishy little heart.

When I see myself objectively, it’s a little pathetic. Like watching someone on American Idol who can’t sing and you sort of move one corner of your mouth down and knit your eyebrows together in empathetic shame. Because yes, it brings me shame. I keep sending my stories in to publishers and editors to whom my stories are a barbarian’s scratches on a stone.

But nothing, not even that most persuasive of anti-teachers, Embarrassment, can stop me from writing fiction, from trying to weave worlds from words with my clumsy fingers. It’s an incomparable obsession, and every once in a while I step back from myself. I observe and I wonder at my own faithfulness.

At least it’s a shared faith. Like I’m part of a secret society that’s too terminally embarrassed to meet publicly. But we all recognize each other. I know people who have never had a successful musical tour or album but still head home every day from the coffee shop where they work to scribble down the song that’s been tickling their skulls all day and making their eyes go unfocused while they steam a latte. Friends who live in studio apartments the size of closets but still manage to scrape enough cash together for oil paints to adorn their canvases no one will ever buy. And me myself, sitting in my living room, writing thousands of words of fiction everyday and still, somehow, feeling the need to write more (hence, blog).

It’s isolating, failure. If people in ordinary jobs had to deal with this shit, our economy would fall apart because everyone would be hiding in their cars refusing to go to the office. If every salesman was turned down; if every real estate agent never made a sale; if every cook had her meals sent back untouched, nothing would ever get done. And yet, here we are, the army of the unpublished and the unrecognized and we never stop.

What makes you come back to it? Tell me your story, your genesis. Tell me why regardless of the relative successes and failures in your creative life you get up every day and write, or draw, or sculpt, or act. Tell me.

Since we’re sharing, here’s mine. 

I’m sitting outside on the time-weathered porch at my home. It’s summer and in my memory the maple trees that surround the house and the gravel driveway are an explosion of green and their arms reach all the way up to the sky, just grazing the underbelly of the globe. It’s warm and it sounds like crickets and my dad’s at the barbecue and I’m four, maybe five. My oldest brother, S, is regaling my third-to-oldest brother, J.

S has a laugh that’s raucous but low and a shimmer in his eye and he’s regaling J., who gazes at him with an expression of adoration that I’m sure is mirrored in mine. S is a lot older than me, and he has a twisting demon shape tattooed on his chest and the One Ring on his back. 

Through the smoke of the BBQ and over the crickets and the rushing breeze through the maple arms I eavesdrop. Of course I’m just a little tiny girl and no one thinks I care or I listen, but I do and I do.

S is talking about Moria, Lothlorien, the High Elves weaving their way through forests to reach the Gray Havens. Every word he says is foreign to my teeny ears but for some reason resonates deeply inside my brain. I’m transported, transfixed, and every familiar plant and shrub and face in my world has taken on the distinct possibility of Magic. My brother S is talking about books, the world of books, and my little heart almost bursts with envy.

He’s talking about universes that run parallel to ours that he can access any time he wants. He can part the veil between words and it’s literally as easy as turning a page with his fingertips.

I want to read. I want to read more than I’ve ever wanted anything.

Couple years later. I’m six and I can read. I had a slow and frustrated start, but I focused every fiber of my attention on achieving that goal. (Were I able, currently, to apply that same level of attention to any aspect of my professional life I would be a millionaire right now.)

As it is, at least I can read.

In this next memory, I’m up in my little balcony room, which is wedged upstairs on a platform separated by a curtain hung next to my parents’ bedroom (there are many children and only two bedrooms; we get creative). My bed is directly under the steeple roof and the window that faces out to the road. I always felt like I was a princess in a tower, or a nun in a chapel.

From a pile beside my bed I draw a book, one of the old Wizard of Oz books (did you know L. Frank Baum wrote 14 of those?) the last one in the series. I have a snickers bar, and I eat with the reverence it deserves, layer by layer removing the chocolate, sucking off the nougat, then crunching the peanuts. All the while smudging as much chocolate as possible on my surroundings, the white wall a canvas to my sticky fingers.  As the sun sets into dusk and the sound of my brothers playing fades into the background, I finish the last page in the last book of the series.

Devastation.

It’s over, there are no more stories, the author is dead, and al I can do is re-read forever and ever. And this is when the epiphany occurs: if I wanted to, I could write more in the series. I could create any story I wanted, for myself and for others like me, who didn’t want the books to end.

I suppose at the age of six one experiences an abundance of eye-opening moments. Everything’s so new, after all.  But for me this is the Big One, this is the Answer.

I want to write. I want to write more than I’ve ever wanted anything.

When I think about those two distinct moments in my childhood, they don’t possess the quality of a memory. There’s no distance, no shroud of time, no confusion. I smell the maple trees and the smoke; I taste the Snickers bar. In my young life, those moments were so profound that through sheer force of wanting, they made time stand still and compress so deeply that it imploded into me, into my psyche. Nothing’s more powerful to me than those moments.

Not a day has passed, even in times when I was uninspired, not actively writing, or clinically depressed, that I doubted the conviction of the little person who used to be me. She knew what she wanted  and by extension I do too; I muddle through all the smoke and nonsense of the grown-up world to get back to her, to sit with her in that moment, and to re-baptize myself in that covenant of meaning.

Elizabeth Gilbert (I’ll write about her later, she’s great) talks about how writing is home to her. I cried when I read those words. Cause yeah, writing is home. It’s home and it’s mine. So it can be derivative, and shitty, and unsuccessful, and even publicly derided but I will never stop. I will never move out of my home.

It would be nice to achieve financial success; to garner public recognition; to answer family without a sigh when they ask how’s it’s going.

Yes, it would be nice not to fail.

That would be nice, but “nice” is a shitty, inconsequential word to describe a shitty, inconsequential thing. I don’t want nice. I just want to write.

Why are you here?

What do you want?

And is there anything that could make you stop writing?

 

 

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