Writing

On Failure

Between 1991-92 when I was in my first year of college, and 2002 when I settled down in Austin, I wrote a grand total of roughly 10 poems, 5 short stories, and notebook after notebook of abandoned ideas. We won’t count my journalism work, the thing I was actually competent at. I wasn’t going to be a journalist, I told myself. I was a tortured soul pouring his lifeblood onto the page. There were two years, in 2000 and 2001, where someone took a chance on my writing. Got 2 stories and two poems published. And it would be another 10 years before I got published again. My failures started early.

A few years into a theater degree, my folks convinced me to try something practical. I had been involved in theater for years, since I was 14. Trouble was, I had a head full of theater knowledge but no skill in it. This realization was pretty easy to handle. The fact that I was a rotten fiction writer, that was much harder to take.

Immediately after I graduated with my journalism degree, I began my years of rambling. And my years of writing awful short stories. I felt like I needed to turn my travels into thinly-veiled autobiography. Oy! Kerouac, what hadst thou wrought?

Fast forward to 2008. I was living in Queens, just finished grad school for teaching. The money had dried up with journalism, so I switched gears yet again. I never stopped writing, though. Far from it. I had a whole notebook full of pretty decent memoirs from an autobiography class. I also finished the god-awful novel I’d started in 2000. I filed it away and never looked back.

I realized that I was going through my writing apprenticeship. Thank you, Larry Brown, for the phrase and the concept. Essentially he said that a young writer spends years struggling and failing before he or she finds his or her voice (and genre!) And the length of time depends on the person. This may sound obvious, but when you are down in the thick of it trying to hack out a story, this notion of an apprenticeship is very comforting. I was glad to hear that the pain would end eventually. I just didn’t know when.

I don’t know when I turned the corner and came out of my apprenticeship, but I did. Not to say that I don’t have anything left to learn, just that I can feel confident in calling myself a writer. There are several things that brought me to this point, I think. Daily writing practice is definitely one of them. That is, actually composing something from beginning to end. Another piece of the puzzle was understanding and accepting my limitations, and my strengths. Let’s just say that now when I write a short story that isn’t groan-inducing, I take it as a major win.

Maybe a good analogy for all of this would be metabolism. Keep it stoked with new writing and you will burn mean and lean. How you get to that point… that’s your story to tell. —JM

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