17 June 2008

"Exercising the right not to walk. . . "

My mom told me that the last post I wrote made her feel depressed. I suppose that's what happens when you title something "failure". All those negative connotations. But I promise you I'm doing alright. I'm doing really well, actually. Thanks to a bit of inspiration and a kind friend I'm involved in a play and have found about a dozen new friends to hang out with. And with the end of the term rapidly approaching, my stress level will go down significantly by the end of the week. Yay!

For my Teaching Writing class right now I'm working on a unit on Individualism. The idea is that students will improve their narrative writing skills. Granted - the unit may never actually come to pass. I would need a fairly large supply of books and/or a school district that allows me to ask students to purchase their own copies of books. I have divided the students into three different lit circles, each studying two different books that address the different aspects of/challenges inherent to being an individual. There's House on Mango Street and Night for individuality and family relationships/culture clashes, The Giver and Stargirl for individuality vs. conformity, and The Outsiders and The Chocolate War for individuality and oppression of your peers. These are all really incredible books largely based on personal experience (with the potential exceptions of The Giver and Stargirl) and I think it has the potential to be a really good, interesting unit once I iron out the specifics.

The trouble I'm having with all this intellectually is that I don't really have my mind wrapped around this whole concept of what it means to be an individual yet myself. It's driving me crazy, actually - because there isn't an "answer" to any of my questions. Is it good or bad to be an "individual"? What does it mean to be an individual anyway? Surely there's someone out there in the void or wide expanses of past/future people that thinks the way I do? Is anyone truly unique? And what about the people who "go against the grain" but really just end up running with the crowd? What's so bad about conforming? Robert Frost talks about how taking the road less traveled makes all the difference, but is the road less traveled always the best road?

I think this is going to be another one of those concepts that I don't fully understand until I have a nice long chat with the powers that be after I die. There seem to be so many conflicts. Because you don't want to conform for the sake of conformity any more than you want to go against the grain for the sake of being different. This whole idea of disturbing the universe presented in The Chocolate War, for example - the main character of this book ends up into a kind of isolation of his peers because he "disturbs" that status quo. Is it worth being so "different" that you don't have any camaraderie? It reminds me of the movie About a Boy and the theme of no man being an island.

Bah. Now I'm just frustrating myself some more. I think in the end this whole concept of being an "individual" - whatever that means - is maybe more at the cusp of our existence than we give it credit for. We can spend our whole lives defining and re-defining ourselves in relation to the way we think or in relation to our position among our peers or in our jobs or. . . whatever other social circles we run in. It's a lesson in generally being more socially aware and recognizing the consequences of our actions and our power for change. Sucking our individual marrows out of life but not choking on the bone. We need to know our own limits.

I don't think any of this made sense. That's what happens when I try to think this early in the morning.

05 June 2008


First, an anecdote: My father took my brother to school this week. The way my dad tells it, he stayed at the college for about three hours before my brother said "Dad. . . it isn't really cool for college kids to walk around campus with their parents and grandparents." When I heard this story I laughed for a long time. That, my friends, is the mark of a freshman - even more than the dazed/confused/stressed look the first week of classes. "College kids" who think it isn't "cool" to have their parents around obviously haven't learned to work the system correctly. I love when my parents come to visit. Aside from the fact that I really enjoy their company, it means a few free meals and being a bit spoiled for the day. Case in point? My dad went to the BYU bookstore with me today and I came out with a new BYU sweatshirt and a license plate cover for my car.

On to the main point:

J.K. Rowling spoke today at Harvard for their commencement. Being the avid worshiper of all she says, I looked up the speech online and read it through. I wasn't disappointed at all. Bless her, she really has some powerful insights on life. The point that struck me the most was on her discussion on the benefits of failure.

She began by saying that many of the graduates (and I think this applies just as much, if not more so to BYU students than to Harvard students) are likely driven just as much by the fear of failure than the desire for success. "Ultimately," she continues, "we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it."

In light of some of my personal struggles the last few months, this struck me. Indulge me for a bit - The last few months have been hard ones for me. In many ways I don't think I've ever felt so alone. Much of this is due to the changing relationships I have with many of my friends who are moving away or getting married or simply drifting in their own direction away from me. Being the semi-loner that I am, I haven't really done much to stop this or work against it. One of my freshman roommates, for example, is getting married this month. I haven't received an invitation to her wedding reception at all and knew nothing at all about her bridal shower even though I know my other roommates were all invited. I won't lie and say that didn't hurt.

Aside from "failed" or "failing" relationships, I've been extremely depressed about my writing. I don't think I'm a horrible writer, but I don't see myself as truly spectacular either. The post-England class may have done more harm than good for me in the end, I think. I watched as my friends entered contests and received any amount of recognition while I entered the same contests and others and didn't hear a thing back at all. Of course I know that this is normal - hardly a published writer in the world hasn't met with large amounts of rejection, but the sting is still there. When you pour your heart into something and get little positive feedback, it's hard to find any light at the end of a tunnel.

I've struggled theatrically as well. I've auditioned for dozens of shows the past few years and my success rate has been rapidly declining. I used to know that I would at least be called for a second audition at virtually any theater in the valley. Then, inexplicably, the call backs stopped. It's strange because I have felt -and rightfully so, I think - that my auditions have improved. It doesn't make any sense. It's hard to know if it is just theater politics or if I'm growing more delusional about my abilities.

One Sunday a few weeks ago I had one very large emotional breakdown. I was frustrated because I felt so mediocre. I'm a good writer, not a great writer. I'm a decent actress, not an amazing actress. I have friends, but many of them seem to be moving on while I'm still stuck in singleville. This advice from JKR would have been highly useful once I'd stopped dwelling in semi-irrational-land: that measuring success or failure in any given thing by these imagined standards of the world won't do you any good. Because really, by the world's standards I'm probably a failure in all three of those things. I'm a failure as a friend because I'm so horrible at keeping in touch with people. I move on quickly because few people ever break down the walls I've put around myself for protection. I'm a failure as a writer because I'm an unpublished no-ideas girl with vague ambitions and no way to reach them. I'm a failure as an actress because I hardly ever make the shows I audition for. I'm pretty much an all around failure.

Do I really believe that? No. I did at the time. I had hit a kind of rock-bottom.

Later in her speech, JKR says that "personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement." In other words - setting my standard of success or failure in any one hobby or talent of mine by these so-called measures that the world makes is never going to make a success of me. Even if I do manage to somehow break out of my writing-rut and publish some amazing novel that receives great critical acclaim, what are the odds that I will ever meet with the same success as JKR, for example? I would say that the odds are about as good as my ever learning to fly to Neverland.

So I'm learning to pep-talk myself. I don't care if the world never reads my magnificent words - I enjoy writing. I love language. I love picking it apart and enjoying the clever plays that writers have on their readers. I love coming up with those games myself. If no one else ever enjoys it, then why on earth should that take away from my personal success? And so what if I don't make the cast of some play? I have always known that I have no desire to enter the film/theater industries. I have flaws as an actress but I have strengths as well. When I do get to perform I do all I can to make my part good.

"It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default."

So failure, then, doesn't have to be the opposite of success. Failure isn't falling down, it's staying down.

02 June 2008

Mark Twain would be proud. . .

Last weekend I had to run some errands. As I was leaving my apartment I saw a boy re-staining one of the fences that divides my complex and the one just north of us. It was a blazing hot day and he looked like he just started. I took about one second to feel bad for him and then I just laughed, thinking about Tom Sawyer.

A few hours later I came back. This time I saw this boy kicking it back in the shade with an apple and about four other boys re-staining the fence.

I'm not even kidding.