Thursday, November 5, 2009

Staring Failure in the Face

I gave out gold stars to a bunch of writers last night in a bar. We had all completed a writing workshop during which we turned in our most valiant efforts at poetry, fiction, non-fiction or a combination of genres. The workshop leader, for the last class, staged a "publishing" party in which she handed us all a stack of stamped envelopes and a list of online and actual print publications that might be willing to at least look at our work if not actually publish it.

While she spoke encouragingly about the "success" of others in her workshop and her own publishing coups, she was also realistic. She has a lot of rejection slips as, she suggested, will we if we truly put ourselves out there, if we try.

I grew more and more agitated as the evening wore on, the list of highlighted publications, mostly online zines or journals I'd never heard of, growing heavy in my hands. The drink afterward, with the other writers, with the workshop leader, was much needed, as was the discussion with other writers, many of whom I didn't know, who were in a different workshop night. At least we were all in this together, sort of, could help inspire one another to keep trying.

Creative writing is great that way, far less competitive than journalism. There was always a creeping distrust of other journalists' efforts, as if their work, if good, might be placed further up in the magazine than yours, might make the cover, while yours might get stuck somewhere unimportant, in the middle. It was a very obvious, tangible way of marking whose story was better than whose. For creative writing, for books or pieces in journals, somehow it seems a wider playing field, one in which there is room for everybody.

And, of course, then again, none of us could even make it on to the field. There is always that thought looming: there is no editor waiting on your story, calling to tell you your deadline is fast approaching or has passed. It is possible not to write anything or to write something, even lots of things, and not submit them.
That is why the whole group got gold stars. At least they showed up, tried, picked up their stamped envelopes and plan, possibly, to actually send them to some people with something inside.

One young guy, a film student, is taking himself off to a rented room in a house over his holiday break, just to write, away from it all. Another is in journalism school, trying to deal with a denigrating professor, to keep going despite said professor's rude assessment of his better lines as "labored attempts at word play."

I was reminded, listening to everyone's tales, of a conversation over the weekend with a friend, someone who recently lost a political election that dominated his life for a two-year period. I hadn't seen him, hadn't offered my condolonces at his loss. I offered them up and he just shook his head, baring, honestly, how the whole thing had left him feeling.

"I have no idea what to do now," he said. He had poured his all in to this election, really felt a driving desire to serve his community, enough to pace the streets, paper the neighborhood and surrounding areas, for months on end, ignoring all else including, much of the time, his family, who supported him fully in his efforts. A lot of money had been spent, a lot of labor expended. And for what? He wasn't quite sure.

I grasped at an answer, a solution to his regret. A gold star just didn't seem to cut it. I had given him a number of them during his campaign. Instead, I offered words.

"Look," I said, "you tried, you really put yourself out there, put yourself into the process. It's a horrible process, but you did it, and I'm sure you learned a lot. If nothing else, people know you now..."

I couldn't quite go to the idea that he should run again. I so vividly remember the race for sophomore class president, when Clint Clausen's name was called out instead of mine as the winner, over the loudspeaker, and I had to sit, all of a sudden 100 pounds heavier in my desk chair, feeling the sympathetic stares of students all around me. Never again, I had thought, never again. Then, all it had cost was a few dollars for poster boards, time glad-handing fellow freshmen who all knew me 'cause I had been freshman class president. This was much bigger, the stakes much higher but, in the end, it was the same.

Of course, he should run again, if he wants to, or shoot for some other lofty goal. We never know what will come of our efforts, but that shouldn't really stop us, should it? I bought a magnet recently that reminds me every day not to be bowed simply by outcome:

"WHAT WOULD YOU ATTEMPT IF YOU KNEW YOU COULD NOT FAIL?" it asks in all caps, mocking my fear from the fridge, making me think of what I should try next. No one, of course, is offering such a guarantee. How could they? But I know, I am absolutely positive of the need to try whatever it is you want to try, even if you are forced to face the wreaking stench of failure afterward. If you don't, you are forced every day to face disappointment from the most important person, the one who really matters: yourself.

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