Assignments

(or: how I ended up with a blog, part two)

Ten years ago I gave myself an assignment: write a novel.  I was a young mother, with a brainful of weird ideas and images, looking for a way to mesh something I suspected I might be decent at with the kind of life I wanted to create for myself and my little family.  So I did it.  I wrote a novel, which in hindsight I think I can say was probably not that good.  And, once done, I changed the assignment to: get agent for novel, sell novel, make a million bucks. 

I did not do that, any of it. 

The argument could be made that the goal was too broad, that I had stacked up too many big steps to take at once, and that would be true.  But it is also true to say that I was untested, I hadn't learned enough or practiced enough or even considered another possible course.  Instead of stepping back and adjusting my aim, I went straight at it again.  I wrote another novel, better than the first, but still no agent, no sale, no bucks.  I did the same thing again and again and again, improving each time, getting nicer feedback and making more connections, but crossing no new finish lines.

Ten years, five novels, nearly 500,000 first-draft words (and that's only the completed drafts, saying nothing of the ideas started and abandoned in between).  Countless hours spent scribbling during naps and after bedtimes, slippery sentences caught on the backs of grocery store receipts as I waited in the afternoon pickup line at school. A handful of very generous literary agents who read my work and then read it again, tailored as close to their liking as I could get from their helpful revision notes, and still said no.

"You're almost there," they kept cheering.  "The prose is beautiful, the characters are believable, the premise is intriguing.  But.  Still it's only an 'almost' for me.  Maybe your next story will be The One.  Whenever you finish, send it my way okay?  Keep me at the top of your list."

What they were saying was that I was holding all the right strings but hadn't managed to tie them in the right sort of knot.

If there is anything guaranteed to get under my skin, it is the idea of waste. At best inefficient, at worst selfish and fatal, waste reverberates far beyond the scope of our own individual lives.  Wasted food, wasted resources, wasted time. I would never literally water dead plants (just ask the members of my homeowners' association, who are rarely thrilled by the state of my front yard) but I got to a point where I could no longer fight off the feeling that I was doing it in a figurative way.  I was writing novels that weren't going anywhere and the idea of starting another felt like the first step toward wasting an awful lot of time and energy. 

I had to accept that I had failed.  And, again, it didn't count that I had tried.  It didn't make me feel better knowing that I had written a book (or five), even when my sweet husband tried to convince me to be proud of it.  I'd done something, sure, but not the something I wanted to do.  I hadn't completed the assignment.

I had failed.

Hard.

The funny thing was, after I finally did get some distance and catch my breath and reassess what had gone down, I didn't mind admitting that I had failed.  As much as the waste bothered me – ten years was an awful long time to spend spinning my wheels – I was relieved.  I hadn't been enjoying the effort.  Even if one of those books had broken through, I doubt I would have felt any more fulfilled than I did at the end of any other work day.  Driven by pure stubbornness, I had forced myself to push through my own instincts and straight into misery.

Right now, all over the world, good-hearted loving parents and husbands and friends are assuring the people they care about that they are successful no matter what.  "The only real failure is the failure to try," they're saying.  I know because I've said and heard those exact words myself.  But if we tell ourselves that trying alone is enough, that we're hitting the mark when we're really not, then there's a chance we are sacrificing the joy that can come from actual, concrete accomplishment.  Maybe instead of denying failure we should be telling each other something like, "It's good that you tried and it's okay if you fail – like really fail super hard, so hard it hurts and you bleed and cry and maybe throw up a little – as long as you learn from it.  Get back up and take a different line next time."

I consider myself a resilient person.  I've walked through more than my fair share of fire in my years on this planet.  So, even though I swore after my trip to Colorado that I was done with bikes forever and ever and ever, when we got back to home to Florida I rode again.  I stuck to the flat, safe, baby trails, I rested when I needed to, I started the day with smarter (albeit slightly more boring) fuel like eggs whites on toast, but I rode.  And little by little my confidence healed.  I bought a spin bike and resolved to use it every possible day, to build my strength and speed, to fortify my heart for the next mountain I faced.

And I started writing again.  Not another novel, not yet.  But putting words on pages feels good, for the first time in a long time, and even if it's still not my time, even if I fail all over again in a new and devastating way, I can't wait to see what happens.

(I won't say no to having a cold bottle of Coke ready afterwards, just in case.)