Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why You Should Fail at Life

A new day, a new month. As I write this, the first Late Night with Jimmy Fallon show is wrapping up. I didn't watch it (I've got a Futurama rerun on at the moment), and I don't plan to, never having been a fan of Fallon's. (He couldn't keep a straight face on SNL, and he was never particularly funny to begin with.) And thus, this post's subject? Failure.

Here in Raleigh, March began with winter having one last hurrah, with about two-ish inches of snow overnight on Sunday. It's already mostly melted in our yard, though I imagine it'll be visible around the city until Wednesday or so. According to current forecasts, we'll be seeing temperatures in the 60s by the end of this week, and Saturday's forecast to hit the low 70s, like the most recent Saturday past. Yes, North Carolina weather and temperatures are completely schizophrenic, and we're currently in the midst of the last seizures between winter and spring before everything gets much warmer and we start seeing summer-like temperatures, which we usually begin to as early as April. As I've mentioned in the past, summer's gradually devouring the rest of the seasons here in the south. Fail.

What a time to be trapped here. I finally heard back from UMass Amherst on Saturday as well, and rather predictably, they rejected me. At the rate things are going, grad school doesn't seem to be in the cards for me, so to speak. Not exactly a heartening feeling. Fail, you might even say.

Lacking an English degree to begin with doesn't help things, but while you certainly don't need a degree as proof of actual writing talent - having a talent and earning a degree are very different things, after all - people tend to jump to conclusions, and lacking a degree lends you the appearance of a lack of credentials and capability as a writer. So in pursuing writing as someone sans English degree, you're stuck between a rock and a hard place. Not that there's such a thing as an easy path as a writer. It's hard to carve out a future or find an exact direction in writing when you're stuck flailing in a couple of general directions rather nearsightedly. Ideally, a few years at UMass would have helped me focus on the directions I'm heading in my life all the more. At this point in 2009, it looks like I'm going to continue being a drifter.

Project 27 Days is nearing completion, with only a couple of pages of the epilogue left to finish now. Then I'll be editing those last few chapters and epilogue and sending them off to my test readers, and beginning a series of massive revisions from the beginning of the book to complete the manuscript and ultimately reformat as much of it as I need to in order to make the book as good as I possibly can on my own. (While also making an effort not to over-rewrite, as it's also very easy to fall into the pitfall of spending forever rewriting and revising a single work, when after a certain point, you have to be willing to call it complete, set it aside, and move on to something else.) Failing at getting into UMass Amherst stings, but it's the sting of rejection I've got to get used to - I'm used to rejection and failure in regards to many things important to me in life (I've come to expect it, in fact), but this year's gonna gonna be full of getting piled on by rejection after rejection, football-style. I always did hate that sport. It's an important part of the writing process, though. Few people who'd like to write a novel ever actually finish one and get to the part where they have to start looking for an agent. Even less make it past that point and find any kind of success. Writing, like all artistic pursuits, is an utterly soul-crushing business, and people becoming completely disenchanted, disillusioned, and giving up on their writing dreams is in no way uncommon. It's a difficult, competitive business, and as my grad school application reminded - competing for one of twenty slots - I don't tend to fare well when the competition's stiff. I never have, in life. Granted, at this point, I have no idea where I place or how I could ascertain that - writing itself is a largely subjective world - but all I can do is keep going.

I've read that the suggested wordcount length for first novels from complete-nobody authors looking to get published is roughly somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 words. At this point, 27 Days is in the 170,000some word range. It's no 1,000+ page unpublishable behemoth, but it's not a small novel, either. Exactly how much this will impact my odds of finding an agent passionate about my work, let alone a publisher willing to back and market the novel, remains to be seen. I suspect that odds are, the length won't be something in the work's favor. I just have to hope that the intriguing premise and quality of the story are enough to get people interested. (And as far as I'm aware, there's not some massive gap in the literary market between people looking to buy 200-300 page books and people willing to buy interesting-looking 300-400 page books. Neither of those page ranges are anywhere near as intimidating as 1,000+ page books.) I've got a lot of revision work ahead, ideally hoping to finish my personal final draft by early April, but I'm sure I'll have to do a lot of editing for whoever ends up representing me in the end - however many weeks, months, or years it takes for me to find an agent - considering that publishers these days want books that're basically ready to go and hit the printing presses when agents present their manuscripts. That way - while they may feel the need to do a little editing, too - they can focus on getting covers together, get some review comments, and focus on the whole marketing process. (Which the author themselves needs to certainly participate in quite a bit of as well. I'm expecting that if I do indeed manage to make it that far, as I'm hellbent on, it'll be a very interesting experience.) I just have to hope none of the edits are too drastic - I can't see the book losing any complete days in the story, since even on the slower days, there are bits of character development, images, and story elements I really don't like the idea of cutting. I think I've done a good job of letting the characters tell their story overall as is - in a manner much mirroring the way life itself unfolds - while cutting out everything I'd thought about or written in the past that I felt no longer worked in the final, complete story as it grew and told itself.

I just have a very long, undoubtedly rather depressing and soul-crushing year ahead with boatloads of rejection coming my way from all sides. But I'll be facing it with my head held high and dealing with all the disappointments and pain as best I can as I keep on going. I can only persevere: my great passion in life is storytelling, and I will become a published writer - ideally, a successful one in time - whatever it takes. I'm not going to compromise my values or who I am for anyone or anything. Hell, after 7 or so years of my stupid unrequited love situation now, with what I'm doing on that front, if anyone knows what it means to persevere beyond reasonability, it's me. Stepping into the creative literary world is something that takes a measure of foolishness - not unlike love itself - as any seasoned writer'd no doubt tell you. And as human beings, we're not always the most reasonable of creatures to begin with.

Let's end things on a more positive note. The CPAC conservative convention over this past weekend? Really only echoed the desperation of the Republicans and their ever-increasing irrelevance, as last night's Daily Show very effectively noted.

Life's short. Everybody fails sometimes. The most valuable things involve risk-taking, putting yourself out there and making yourself vulnerable in facing the potential for all kinds of embarrassment and pain. So the whole gist of this entry - in case you didn't feel like reading all my rambling - comes down to that you shouldn't be afraid of failure. It hurts, sure, but we all do it, and it's just part of life - part of growth as human beings. It's better to take these risks than to live an insular, secure life where you're left wondering how things could have been different if you'd taken more risks.


Lindsay Champion said...

A teacher of mine in college who is a notable and recognizable writer of novels galore has said that he found he was discriminated against by editors, agents and reviewers because he had gone to grad school for writing. There are definitely two different schools of thought on the matter. Some people feel that grad school "ruins" your raw talent and that you cannot be taught how to write creatively. My favorite example is David Sedaris, who really had no idea what the hell he was doing until his 40s. Don't give up and don't consider things like this a failure. I do not consider them to be failures in the least.

lindsay || newyorkwords.net

Benjamin Fennell said...

Hrm, interesting. I've never been exposed to that particular school of thought before, so it's nice - and certainly reassuring - to hear that there's a lot more commonplace range of thought in regards to writers and what makes them qualified. It was concerns about becoming some "stuffy English major" who obsesses over grammar that kept me from being an English major in my undergrad years as is - I just took a couple of creative writing classes, and went through one workshop (In which the environment was constantly rather tense and unpleasant when people were critiquing each other), and kept my focus on non-writing things that interested me. Which largely amounted to some literature courses, a brief foray into poetry (Though I'm not much of a poet - my stuff mostly ended up being poetic narrative jokes with weird punchlines.), some film study, and a whole lot of history, culture, and politics across the globe.

With any luck, maybe this'll end up being some kind of strength, since I'm rather focused on zeroing in on and honing whatever natural talent I have. I try to experiment a good bit with the things I write as is - the very nature of the setting of my first novel isn't entirely concrete (Which I'm not sure if it'll help or not in the publishing process) and generally experimental in nature. But I also rely on a decent number of comfortable cliches here and there - though I try to present them in an intelligent, fresh, and subversive manner as so to keep the reader hooked. (And to make the writing itself interesting, of course. If the writing process isn't engaging and enjoyable, there's no point.)

But yeah, really good to hear, again. David Sedaris is a definite talent - I borrowed a couple of his books from my father a few years back and enjoyed them quite a bit.

Gun said...

Inspirational and depressing.

I feel enlightened and sobered. Slapped and comforted.


Thank you,
I'll be subscribing to you now!

Benjamin Fennell said...

Exactly what I seek to do in equal measure.

No problem. Welcome aboard, and enjoy! Always nice to have new readers and commenters.