Tag Archives: Failure

The Things We Carry (and Must Learn to Leave Behind)

canstockphoto20086498In 1993, I dropped out of grad school after one miserable year. I was a failure, barely surviving academically, juggling three jobs, in over my head in so many ways. I make jokes about it, but when I pitched a nonfiction proposal to an agent last week, she asked about my education. I was truthful and while she was interested in my proposal, I could tell that I did not have a good “platform”.

For nonfiction proposals, agents and publishers want someone with a platform. A platform is the writer’s expertise, background, and being a known entity and expert in their field. I was a little proud that I could pitch an idea on the fly, except that it really wasn’t that spontaneous. And it was never my first intention.

While in grad school, I came across the published journal of a Russian woman who had disguised herself as a man and fought in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military. She had a difficult upbringing. Her mother hated her and at one point, had tossed her out of a moving carriage. She survived, but from that point on, her mother had no part in her care.

The story appealed to me not only as a veteran, but also as someone who was engaged in an ongoing battle with her own mother. It found me at the right time and stayed with me. For nearly 25 years, I’ve kept notebooks, collected research materials, and always planned to write a historical novel someday. The agent pitch I did at the conference brought clarity to me. I didn’t have the chops or the credentials for writing nonfiction history.

I went to the library last night to work on a writing plan to follow up with various agents. While I’m still working on a novel, I thought I’d take a look online to see if there were any other research materials available for a fictional work on Nadezhda Durova. I sat back, stunned. An American writer had written and published a historical novel about her just six months ago.

Dreams, delusions, disenchantment. I’m quite adept at spinning my own story. A story I’ve carried with me all these years – of failure and struggle and the possibility of writing my way to redemption – a story of rationalizations and justifications. Of never fully feeling the pain of the moment in which I am told or learn, once again, that I’m not good enough. All these years, I’ve been disappointed in myself, maybe even a little ashamed. But I had a good idea and maybe that would redeem me.

canstockphoto9159128bI am always reminded of that line by The Talking Heads “How did I get here?” The tale of my academic life is one of happenstance. When I joined the Army at 17, being clueless and uninformed, I wanted to be a French linguist. I had four years of high school French and being a linguist sounded more enjoyable than company clerk or truck driver. The demand for French linguists in military intelligence was, of course, not particularly high. They needed Russian linguists. Okay then.

After spending a year in intensive Russian language training at the Defense Language Institute, I moved onto more training, a permanent duty station in Germany and when my four years was up, I gladly left. The shortest way to a degree meant taking Russian, because I was able to transfer a lot of Army credits. So there I was, on track for a degree in Russian studies. As far from parlez-ing as I could be. Even further from writing.

I finished a four year degree in a subject that had never been part of my “when I grow up…” narrative. With no clue as to next steps, I applied to grad school. In the English department. The admissions rate was about 7% at the time. Applying to a program tied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was like spitting in the wind. I didn’t get in, but I did get accepted into the Russian Department.

It took me a year to realize that I hated my life, hated school, hated getting up at 3:30am to do a janitor job, go to classes, put in my hours as a research and translation intern, and then head to my job at Target.

The final straw was after I had to do a presentation on Russian morphology. In Russian. canstockphoto8727525The professor pulled me aside at the end of class and said that he was going to do me a favor by giving me a B-, instead of the C that is considered failure in grad school. I was going through complete misery just to scrape by on someone’s favor. And paying thousands of dollars for the honor. Time to quit academia and start working fulltime.

The years that followed were progressive administrative jobs, still carrying my notebooks and research materials from Iowa to Minnesota, into a home I share now with my daughter and husband. Since focusing on writing the last few years, the possibility of writing that historical novel seemed closer than ever. Until last night and seeing that Linda Lafferty had written The Girl Who Fought Napoleon.

I didn’t feel crushed or disappointed. In some ways, it was liberating. Carrying that novel idea was more than just a writing project. It was justification for all that education in Russian language and history. It was redemption for having failed. It was a reason for having wasted so much time and money doing something for which I had little passion. Even the kernel of complicated mother-daughter relationships has dissolved in the face of relative peace I’ve made with my own mother over the years.

canstockphoto10806366Last night, I dreamed of getting divorced from someone other than my husband. I woke up feeling sad and disappointed and bemused. The person didn’t have a face that I recognized, but this morning I surmised his name was Failure. 25 years is a long time to carry shame and I think I’m ready to put it down. There are other stories to tell.

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Resolution: Being a Failure in 2014

canstockphoto15625619I am not, in any external or commercial sense, a successful person. I am not a beauty queen, a math whiz, a super athlete, a great singer or any other Breakfast Club stereotype. I do not overwhelm people with my cult of personality or charisma. I’m an average student, a laissez-faire gardener and an inconsistent parent. I am, by all accounts and appearances, average.

In spite of all this mediocrity, I have a super power. I lose well. I lose repeatedly. And then I get up to lose again. The power of being average, of being a little strange under the surface, of never having success handed to you, is that you can be outrageously happy doing whatever loser thing you are doing. I don’t know if it is the tantalizing seduction of a mere possibility of success or if it’s simply doing something, that in that very moment, gives delight.

Whenever the resolution chatter rolls around at the beginning of each new year, I begin to think about intentions. I realized that the overwhelming theme of the upcoming year for me will be failure. Everything I intend on doing this year is unlikely to be a success. This is not false modesty. I’ve picked some projects that have the odds against them. There will be tremendous amounts of effort with slim chance of a jackpot at the end of the rainbow. I don’t find this notion depressing. I’m going to be doing some scary things this year and I think it will be awesome.

Readers of this blog know that I’m an aspiring writer. I’ve finished one draft of a novel and am bouncing around between a 2nd novel and short stories. Work must sooncanstockphoto13103442 equal some money, so now I have to run the wannabe published author gauntlet. While I’m chipping away at that work, I will be taking a run at my other fantasy job. It does not involve a pole, but it is fraught with huge amounts of humiliating failure all the same. I am attempting to perform stand up comedy this year. It should be quite horrible and devastating. And I’m looking forward to it.

Each time I resolve to do something I’m terrified of, I feel just a little bit stronger, a little more fearless, a little more free from the constraints in my head that whisper “you can’t do that”. I’m not funny under pressure. In fact, I’m terrified when speaking to a crowd. I’ve done some improv classes and comedy sketch writing workshops, but aside from listening to comedians most of my life, I have little in my experience to suggest I’d be funny.

But here’s the deal – I don’t want regrets. I don’t want to dance with the “what ifs” the rest of my life. I want to be excited and energized and engaged, even if it means I’m two steps from throwing up on myself from nauseating anxiety. I’m okay with losing. I’m not okay with not trying, not challenging myself, not learning new things. Fear is a fantastic antidote to complacency.

Amid all your good intent and resolutions, put something on that list that scares you just a little. It might seem tiny to the outside world. It may be insignificant compared to the grandiose accomplishments they give out prizes and paparazzi for, but if it takes the edge off the repetition of daily living, inspires and excites you, makes you breathe a little deeper, opens your world a little more, it will help to make you be a more successful human being. And that’s a resolution that can last year round.

How will you be a failure in 2014?

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Deflating the Ego

canstockphoto0170629I have been writing for the last few hours. Poorly so, I might add. My ego is getting in the way. After going through the Freshly Pressed brouhaha, I’m back to just trying to write. People have been extremely generous in their comments, which makes me think that they like what I write, which makes me think that I have to write more things that people will like.

Welcome to complete and utter paralysis.

Part of this inability to find my authentic voice again is that I’ve been working my way through the blogs of followers and commenters. There is some outstanding writing out there – unique and truly breathtaking voices. I spent two hours writing a post about envy this morning, but was so wrapped up in actual envy, that I couldn’t post it.

What if it’s not good enough? I hit the speed bump of ego and have now veered off course into self-doubt and criticism and competition. When it comes to writing, these are completely useless tools. Which is exactly what I feel like right now: a complete tool.

I cringe when people talk about the fear of success. I don’t fear success. I fear what follows it, when I feel the need to repeat it. My “successes” are miniscule in status and a brief wisp of time, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s enough attention for a lifelong closeted writer, that I long to be as good as I imagine people might actually think I am. Did you hear that? It’s the sound of me choking.

Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.                                Ranier Maria Rilke

There are a few times in my life when my ego got ahead of my skill set. Usually it precipitates in a complete disaster. Every competition I’ve ever been in, I’ve been runner up….to the runner up.  I always make it to regional level, get freaking excited and then fall squarely on my face at state. Mediocre success followed by spectacular failure. And none of these failures would have seemed huge, had my ego not set me up for the fall.

Some people are able to stay authentic and genuine throughout the ups and downs of failure and success. I have to drag myself begrudgingly back to the center path of reality and occasionally remind myself of every past failure just to get grounded again. It’s not perhaps the healthiest route back to normal, but it’s effective. I can write from that perspective. I know how to be an underdog.

Even underdogs have ego, though and here’s my point of unassailable pride. I put my faith in this well-known cliché: Get the hell up again.  Do it again. Write again. Run again. Play that godawful flute solo again. Do a standup act that makes people clap more when you leave the stage than when you’re on it. Shoot off that premature “I love you” into deafening silence. Put your name in the hat. Raise your hand. Stand up first.

Fail big. Fail spectacularly. Bring failure home to meet your parents. Spoon with failure at night. Chug a couple raw failures in the morning. Failure doesn’t scare me – it’s how I find my voice again.

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