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The Joy Menu #5: Failure
Your intrepid author cops to a decades-long failure from which he has extracted a newsletter-sized silver lining.
Today I’m thinking about failure.
In fact, I think about failure often. I am not someone for whom “gratitude,” or overt positivity, comes naturally (surprised?!)—I have to work on that. And failure seems to be the glittering chimera which lurks behind gratitude with a sly middle finger raised next to a cheeky grin.
I spent a whole extra day sitting on today’s newsletter. Not exactly revising, so much as re-reading and declaring it incomplete, unfinished, deficient. I think it may be all of those things, but also…who cares? I’m sending it out to communicate something which is more than just the cohesion of the essay, or the excellence of its artistry, or the quality of the prose.
Much of this whole project is that: sending, communicating, sharing, despite reservation, despite imperfection, despite coming-up-short.
The following is not a story of external failure (“I applied for the job but they didn’t give it to me—the fools!”), it’s one of internal failure. Of letting something get to me, and allowing that “get” to last a decade.
I feel shitty about that. Still.
This newsletter is my attempt to own that failure, and to re-wire the narrative so it isn’t about giving up. So it isn’t about failure.
I hope it resonates. (And as always, let me know if it does.)
Onward to creative joy,
Failure to Launch
The most painful messages I carry from the past are those that have come in the form of rejection, exclusion, or disinterest.
Working, toward the end of college, as an intern and “book designer” for a local man who was launching a literary journal with some friends. Enjoying the work, getting praised for my cover design and then, emboldened, sending him a handful of my poems.
His response: harsh, meticulous criticism, and summary rejection. After which, I didn’t write poems for a decade.
What was it about that response—from an older writer I respected, admired, wanted to emulate—that landed so much like a shut door, which was then locked, and barred, and reinforced with iron? And why didn’t I wait, and then knock again?
Maybe it was a misalignment between what I thought was the quality of work I was writing, and the reality as he experienced it.
Maybe it was it my fragile 22 year-old ego, which was unwilling to weather such a slight, to shrug and keep going.
Maybe it was entitlement: I interned with you; I deserve to be published by you!
Maybe it was simply hurt feelings (why don’t you like me), or a natural segue to other writing (it spurred me to try my hand at prose), or fatigue (none of my poems had been published and the constant rejection was getting heavy to hold).
Whatever it was, the experience embittered me to that person, to his project, and—worst of all—to my own capacity as a poet. I let his words stand in place of my own, and let some tether which had held me connected to my own poetic voice fray, and the snap, because of how I heard, held, and internalized what, to him, was likely an off-the-cuff and unimportant commentary.
There were plenty of places I could have turned, or people I could have turned to, if I had wanted a pep talk, affirmation, or praise. I didn’t; and that’s where the failure lies.
If I could speak to that 22 year-old now, I would say:
Trust your gut: what’s good about the poems is still good, regardless. Write more with that good, and revise more for the good you see already there.
Trust your joy: if you love writing the poems, then that is enough of a good thing. Write some more. Write many more. Ask no one for permission.
Trust your hurt: if this wasn’t important to you, such a rejection wouldn’t sting. Protect yourself by protecting the engagement and the process of creation, not your ego by trying to never get hurt again.
Today, I am saying this again to my 38 year-old self. (Who has that 22 year-old folded up inside of him. 👋Hi, bud.)
One last thing: in the name of moving through and moving on, here’s that poem from long ago. In fact, it’s the poem I was most proud of from that year, and of which that writer was most critical (typical). I wrote it after months of visiting my grandmother, who was losing her engagement with the present world because of dementia. My goal was to write an extended metaphor which morphed into the very thing it was describing as the poem crept along. I think it holds up. Still.
(A post-script: In writing this newsletter, I tried to find the original comments written in reaction to this poem. They’re so vivid in my mind—even now, 15 years later—that I imagined they’d be sitting ever-ready on my desktop, or starred and saved on Page One of my email inbox. They weren’t. I couldn’t find them. Which seems for the best.)
Thanks for reading, hope you’re well, and don’t forget to share this with all the failures in your life (see what I did there??).
Until next week,
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