Dear Abby and Karen,
Today for some reason, I am thinking about failure. The failure of a book to sell well. The failure of a book to be published. The failure to complete a book. The failure to even write at all. Perhaps I am thinking about this because last night in one of my classes we wrote on Failing at Something.
I had plenty to choose from. A marriage. Jobs. School. All of the above regarding books and writing. But what I wrote about was the possibility that I hadn’t failed.
Take the marriage. It ended after eight years. My biggest failure there might be not ending it sooner, for it was meant to end. On the other hand the fact that it was meant to end does not necessarily mean that it never should have been in the first place. I was eighteen when I said I do, and had it said to me. Neither of us knew a damn thing, and we both had a lot of growing to do. But while we certainly had our big fights, and disappointed each other, and drove each other crazy, at the same time we were safe. A kind of safe anyway. A dangerous safe as we each grew in the ways we needed to grow. Is there really any other kind?
All during that marriage, hard as it was, I was collecting stories, and I was becoming me, and I was learning all that I could given the fear I carried in my gut like something planted there. I learned to drive. I learned to stoke a wood stove and bank a fire. I learned how to garden, laugh, cry, make love, not make love, pay bills, endure. I learned my way out of the woods I walked in behind our house, and eventually I learned my way out of the marriage too. That marriage was a resounding success.
Take also the jobs I’ve held. There have been probably fifty to one hundred of them. It could be said that I failed at those jobs, but I never really intended to succeed, not in the way one thinks of succeeding at a job. Those jobs were place-holders, something I did while writing. They’re called day-jobs in the art world, although some of mine were at night. Most of them never meant anything more to me than a paycheck. I collected those paychecks and I used the money I earned to shelter and feed myself, to clothe myself, to keep warm or cool, to flush my waste, to stay in touch with people and to move myself from one place to another. Those jobs weren’t failures. They too were resounding successes.
But then there are the books. There is one in particular that I am thinking of. It never got published and it never will. I don’t actually like it very much. Even though I worked on it for two years, I don’t have much of a relationship to it. I don’t have a relationship to the characters. It’s a failure, except that it taught me to trust myself.
When I wrote it I had decided that my usual slow way of writing needed to change, that I’d never have a “career” unless I learned to write faster, so I did what I’d always heard I should do when writing a first draft. Instead of pushing the work through the sieve a little every day, as I had always done before, I barreled through without looking. I had heard, often enough to believe it may have some merit, that one should throw everything you can think of into that first draft, and if you want to you can take it out later.
I admit I had fun writing that book, but I never came to a deep understanding of the story. In the end I felt like I had a knotted wad of necklaces and chains. I couldn’t tell where one began and another ended. Was this a plot point, or a theme, or important, or not? I tried to untangle it, and I suppose I wrote something passable, though I’m actually glad it never got accepted for publication. The biggest problem with this process was that it wasn’t mine, and it didn’t produce something I could relate to or feel strongly about or have a relationship with. It turns out I wasn’t doing it wrong after all; I was just doing it slowly. I already knew that, of course. Plenty of people told me so.
Too slow. You should be writing a new novel every eighteen months, I was told. I tried. I really did, but I failed. I failed at what was wrong for me. It takes time to write deeply. I can’t change that. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a law of nature.
Much love – Nancy