Notes on Failure

I’m wondering these days if everything about writing and publishing is about failure. If you’re any good, anyway. This is why it has both surprised me, and not, to pick up a non-book related hobby — sewing — in recent weeks. I wanted to build something with my hands that required a different use of my brain. And it helped me view my writing life a little differently in the process, which is always cool.

A common misconception non-writers and aspiring writers have about writing is that when you write a first draft, you are done. I don’t know where this concept comes from. It might be that we live in a society that metabolizes everything very fast, from news cycles to video clips, so it makes sense that we share a common expectation that even things that should be slow can happen more quickly (says the lady who has all but abandoned my Crockpot in favor of my Instant Pot). 

But actually, the longer and more complex your writing, the more revision it probably requires of you. And that’s as it should be. A solid draft isn’t really excellent or even good until it’s gone through a few rounds of revision, probably many rounds. 

One way that writing weeds people out of the profession or vocation (can you get discouraged out of a calling?) comes down to whether you have the capacity for the rigor of revision. Some of it is ego. Some of it is pure determination. You have to outlast the many versions of the thing. 

A marathon, not a sprint. Only a cliche because it’s true.

When I was starting out, I wish someone would have told me to listen a little less to the people who fed my ego and maybe had decent points about my talent as a writer and my attentiveness to the craft and a little more to the physically and spiritually demanding aspects of writing. That I would sit alone with myself and my memories and thoughts for long periods of time, waiting for what I imagined would be on the page to be fully realized as the story, essay or poem that is actually on the page. 

Another cliche is appropriate here: You can’t really push the river. There is something that the work is teaching you when it is janky and uneven and not working. All that you learn on your way to the draft that is as good as you can make it (not perfect, maybe not ever) is part of the writing, too. 

So it is with learning a new craft. The story about me and sewing begins with my grandmother, Edna, who showed up in an 1940 Census report as someone who cooked and sewed as a profession for something called the National Youth Administration down in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This is the most information I have about my mother’s mother and it made me feel closer to her to know that cooking is one of my great joys, but I have also always been fascinated by fashion design — specifically fashion illustration. An old dream of mine was to be a fashion designer one day, mainly because I grew up without the luxury of clothes that were made to fit me. They were always from someone else’s closet, their old things, re-sold at discount in thrift stores. One day, I would make my own things, just for me. 

I gifted myself a sewing machine and some virtual classes at a local sewing center. The center sent a toolkit with all the things — a tomato-shaped pin cushion, a tape measure, fabric, shears (just very sharp, large scissors) and more. The machine was/is deeply intimidating, with little compartments for bobbins and other knickknacks. I watched a YouTube video on how to thread the thing maybe three or four times, and still, when it was time for the first three-hour class, I did it wrong, and my beautiful, intimidating machine made this constipated noise. The instructor tried to see through my less than sharp computer camera where things had gone wrong (I figured out later that I had done something strange with the thread and the presser foot, and it would not be the first time) and ultimately said, “Hmm, this seems like a mechanical thing.” 

I wonder what I was thinking about when I was stitching — but not really stitching — the top…

Not that helpful, but we are not meant to learn everything on Zoom. Probably especially not something tactile like sewing. I had a very acute understanding of what my students had experienced throughout my Zoom teaching experiences over the past year and some months. Noted.

And when it came to sewing, I was frustrated and blissfully happy to be failing at it. Failing meant that I was trying something totally new. I fudged the measurements, and ruined the stitches. The thread kept coming out of the machine.

I couldn’t really figure myself out except to say that I must enjoy being humbled. This is what is at the core of the writing life. You cannot know the perfect way for you until you have written a lot of bad shit. Corny, underdeveloped, obsessed dreck. Maybe there are some salvageable lines in there. But maybe not.

One way to look at rejections of your work — for contests, for fellowships, for whatever — is to say, “They’re wrong.” But another way to look at them, especially as they begin to get sweeter and more concrete about what doesn’t work is to say, “Hmm, I wonder if they have a point.” 

The relief of making a lopsided tote bag, to which I affixed straps that hang oddly, like banana peels over the top of the unfinished lips of this bag that I can never take outside, is that I tried. And for my first try, it wasn’t bad, even though it didn’t yield the beautiful bragging rights that I had hoped for. Who likes somebody who is always winning at everything all the time anyway? Not me. Probably not you. 

I won’t lie: It was a relief to go back to my works in progress after botching not just the bag, but also a skirt, which I imagined would look one way but turned out to be the wrong size pattern for my body, or really, the body of anyone I know. So. That sucked. It’s a lot of fabric. I suppose I will use it now for something else, something different. Or maybe I’ll start again with another piece of fabric. There’s some kind of metaphor in there about writing, I think.


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