05 June 2008

Failure

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.

2 comments:

ivanhoe said...

I read this article and you came to mind. (If you want a Word file I can send one to you.)

The gifted young fiction writer has to learn through adversity to separate rejection of one’s work from self-rejection, and with respect to the latter, self-criticism (otherwise known as revision and what one might call re-envision) from self distrust. For the inexperienced writer, a year or two of rejection or a major rejection-say, of a novel- can lead all to easily to self-distrust, and from there to a disabling distrust of the writing process itself. Anxious, depressed, defensive, the writer who is suffering this distrust, whether temporarily or chronically or terminally, gives up a fundamental and enabling right: the right to write uncertainly, roughly, even badly. A garden in the early stage is not a pleasant or compelling place: It’s a lot of arduous, messy, noisome work- digging up the hard ground, putting in the fertilizer, along with the seeds and seedlings. So with beginning a story or novel. But the self-rejecting writer goes from creating to judging: from the mind to the typewriter to the wastebasket. In time, the mind forgoes the latter two stages and becomes a ruthless system of self-cancellation.

The writer’s defense is the power of self-objectivity, an interest in otherness, and faith in the process itself, which enables one to write on into the teeth of doubts and then to improve the result. In the scars of the struggle between the odd, sensitive side of the self that wants to write, and the practical, socialized side that wants results, the gifted young writer is likely to find his or her true sense of vocation. Moreover, writing itself, if not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts diffuse anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer’s main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer’s main means of relating to otherness.

In sum, the gifted young writer needs to learn to trust the writing process itself, and beyond that, to love as well as hate it. For writing is not, of course, always stoop labor and second thoughts and accepting one’s limits and limitations. There are the exhilarations of finding that the way ahead has opened overnight, that the character who has been so elusive has suddenly walked into the room and started talking, that the figure has been weaving itself into the carpet. But if the gifted young writer persists in believing that the latter conditions should be the normal ones, otherwise known as “inspiration” or “natural talent”, the writer will likely decide after a few years that he or she fatally lacks one or both, or has developed a writer’s block, and he or she may well turn to a more sensible and less threatened mode of expression, such as teaching or writing for one or the other of the media.

Virtually all the fiction writers I’ve been speaking to about these matters fix the turning point in their writing lives in the period during which intrinsic interest of what they were doing began to take over and to generate a sense of necessity. The development of this sense of necessity seems to be the rock-bottom basis for a career as a novelist. Whatever may feed it, finally comes to be subsidiary to the simple imperative of being at work. At this point, writing fiction has become one’s way, in the religious sense of the term.

Adapted from , A Few Good Voices in My Head: Occasional Pieces on Writing, Editing, and Reading My Contemporaries. © 1987 by T. Solotaroff.

Keep your chin up, kiddo.

Ben said...

Great post, very much of the heart -- thanks for writing it. :) And keep on plugging away with your writing, because you really are a good writer. Really. :)