This week, under my “Misadventures in Self Publishing” category, I’ll be discussing Failure, one of the ways we cripple ourselves, and my methods to overcome. Next week I’ll continue the Get Our of Your Own Way topic with this nugget: Hey, maybe you’re not so awesome! Sound intriguing? Sound like just the kind of slap-you-with-a-psht-sound-effect, tough-love coaching you like? Well, your tastes in self-help may be questionable, but I’ll oblige.
For now, let’s talk about the ultimate F-bomb for writers the world over: Failure. Everybody ever, no matter how kick-ass a person has become (or used to be!) has experienced this ovary-punching, toenail-kicking, cystic zit on the face of your life. The question is not if you have failed, or if you will fail, but what the hell do you do with it?
We have a tendency to partition our lives into eras, or categories like home, parenting, work, and even further: legitimate, paid work, hobby work, side hustle. It’s helpful for our mental clutter to think this way. It’s also sometimes helpful to get over things in this way; it’s easier to let pain go when we relegate it to the past. But we are, at least partly, made up of the sum of our experiences, and our reactions to them.
I’ve failed. I’ve failed a lot. I didn’t make the basketball team in middle school. I didn’t get the job, got dumped, fell down (a lot!), lost opportunities, got rejection letters or worse: I was met with the forlorn sound of indifference, the vast digital equivalent of crickets chirping as I put my work out again and again, where it was fated to sit, waiting for the series of commands to activate, illuminating my story on the screen of some blessed reader with a silent choir calling out: “aaah-aaah-AAAH!”
In fact, I’m so used to failure that I have wrung two gifts from it: vast gratefulness when my particular talents are seen and enjoyed, and an ever-strengthening supply of patience.
Sometimes, my optimism dries up and my patience scuttles away before a storm of despair. In case you don’t know naturally optimistic people, let me explain this: when we are down, we go DOWN. It’s a deep pit, full of the ooze of worthlessness.
But I promised you a discussion on how I handle getting hung up on failure. Before I can do this, I have to describe a failure of a wholly nonprofessional kind. Please understand that the story I’m about to tell is in no way a declaration of how I believe other people should think, or feel, or act, in any way. It is an insight into my views, and mine alone.
I wanted a homebirth for my first baby. I wanted it desperately, but I was afraid of failure, afraid of pain, afraid that I was going to be a horrible mother. You might guess what comes next: I failed in homebirth. My boy, although a brilliantly healthy child, was born via emergency c-section. I could go into all the messy details for how and why, but it doesn’t matter for this discussion. I did not accomplish my desire. I hit bottom physically and emotionally.
Then, despite the additional rock pile of more sad things: death of a beloved family member, choosing to leave behind my burgeoning business, feeling totally unmoored…I came back up. I loved my family, I’m naturally an optimistic person, and I made dozens of small choices toward happiness every day. Then, I discovered I was pregnant again. Again, I opted for a homebirth.
Here’s the thing: when I was pregnant with my boy, I could never visualize birthing him. I had no idea how that immense a thing could happen. I had no concept that I could actually do it. But with my girl, I knew. I knew I could. I had failed, had felt the deep, keening sting of failing in what I percieved to be my first real act of motherhood, and I was still alive. I was still there, and my boy was there, too, happy and healthy. Somehow in the dungeon of failure I found the strength I needed.
I rocked my second homebirth. I ripped my heart open and let my failure fly out of me, because there isn’t room in one person for a suitcase full of FAILED and a sweet, buoyant “I f-ing did it!” It was not easy getting my baby girl out of my body. It hurt, a lot, and in birth you have to embrace the pain like a lover. You have to accept it. You can’t say “No, I need a break, make it stop a while.” Well, you can, but then your midwife, your uterus and the forthcoming little person will make you understand in no uncertain terms that it ain’t happening. I was rent when my daughter came into this world. I was struck by lightning and ripped apart, and the failure I felt in birthing my son was exorcised from me.
So, when my writing is rejected…I mostly can accept that. Nobody is everybody’s cup of tea. And, there are plenty of people who say “yes, please.” But when I fall into despair, I embrace it, just like the pain of childbirth, because I know it will end. I let it take me down, make my eyes dark, show me all my shortcomings. And then, when it’s all over, I sigh, and think to myself, “I f-ing wrote that book. I accomplished it. That’s really something.” And I’m still here.
Here’s something important: we can change our reactions to our past experiences. Maybe we can’t change what we said or did at the time, but we can choose how to embrace or let go of the event today. And when you do, when you sew your badge of sadness as a valuable life experience on the back of your jacket and then forget about it, you’ll discover something badass: you’re a better writer, now. Go write!