Monday, June 09, 2014

Confessions of a failed author #2

At 1:58 in the above video, Rowling says, "It's impossible to live without failing at something. Unless you live so cautiously, that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case, you fail by default."

If you look at social media, you seldom - or never - come across people celebrating their failures. You don't see it in friends or family either, because all we want is success, and we want to be around success-stories. But we don't learn from our success. We don't grow from our success. We learn and we grow by learning how to avoid failure, how to build on its vast and impenetrable basements.

Nowhere is failure more personal, I believe, than in the life of a writer. Why? Because a decent writer puts his heart and soul in his work, he exposes it to the world. The rejection of that amounts to (by implication) a rejection by the world of YOU. If a writer dedicated a sizable portion of his life to his craft, and fails, there is the very real imputation that MY LIFE IS A FAILURE.

It's debilitating. It's depressing. But is it any more true than a jilted lover or a rich businessman who base their identities on the romantic other, or on money, as a measure of who and what they are?

I used to have an inner fear that writing was in some ways pathetic, a cop out, a way to avoid living. Yes, it can be that. But it can also be an opportunity to re-frame a narrative. Not only your own narrative, or your nation's narrative, but a narrative of time and place. A narrative of an entire species, of a whole civilized world.

So you think words aren't important? Consider that at the end of everyone's life, from the greatest president, to the lowliest beggar, all that remains of us are words. Often the words of others.  Do they do these lives justice?  Sometimes.
I hope I have with my book on the late Reeva Steenkamp. Right now #88  #87 #54 on Amazon's bestseller list. More often than not, they don't.  When someone dies we dismissively say, "Well, X died doing what he loved." "Or Y is in a better place."  "Or Z passed..."  If X,Y and Z were present to speak for themselves they'd probably say, "You know what - I wish I was still alive, and not dead!  Am I in a better place now that I'm dead?  Really?  Well, do you want to swap?")

The true power of words hit me when I interview people who have achieved big things.  Published a book. Broken a world record.  All that effort - even if it was lived in the world - is still reduced to a narrative.  And if it isn't, it's lost.

So do I still think words aren't important? Are the opening sentences of the bible, a book that has shaped the entirety of human history, and continues to shape peoples lives, unimportant?  Are they even true? Here is something with the humble constitution of paper and intricate type...but it's the stuff that brings people together, others are put to death because of what's in it. Children come into the world because of beliefs that brought these children into being. Children are aborted, because of the shame associated with defying those beliefs. These sentences define our views of the world, and ourselves. That things are created into being. There are no mistakes. They appear immaculate, and perfect. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

I struggle with beginnings in my writing. Because I feel they have to be perfect. I struggle with endings in my life, because they are so imperfect, so unshaped, so unintentioned. It's easy to begin training for an Ironman, to start a novel, or a relationship. Endings are tougher. Because you have to see it all through, the mess, the magic. The meaninglessness. How does one find sense in there, where it seems to far removed from this theory we carry around...of Immaculate Conception... How about Immaculate Closure? Or Immaculate Resolution?
I love this cartoon.  But it's also true, which is why the sting of humor is so deep, and so effective.  Personally I think writers seek an outlet for their voice because they don't feel listened to.  And I think that starts at home.  Some parents don't know they are raising writers, and if they did, I don't doubt they would do something about it.  A failed writer is a difficult thing to do deal with, not only for the parents.  But writing itself is not a act of failure or resignation after all.  It is taking the problem of existence, and using one's own life force, one's own inner spirit, and creatively making it into something else.  That's big.  Sportsmen do it with their bodies, and we admire them for it.  Creative people do it with their minds, and their juices, and when it works it can inspire a generation.  It can change the culture of a species.  And all this comes out of a creative rendering of a private sense of failure, or discontent.  But it is a painstaking process.
It's a lonely craft.  It's slow.  If a Facebook update takes seconds (and often thoughtless seconds), a book can take years, sometimes decades, sometimes an entire life.  Bloodline - which I am busy with now - is already more than 25 years in the making.  I know that because it's my 25 year High School reunion this year.  Do I dare go to that?  My High School years were a low point for me.  My parents started arguing, my mother died at the end of it, and 25 years later my family remains fragmented from the war that was set into motion 25 years ago.  I started writing then and I am still writing.  Bloodline was in hibernation for about 20 of those 25 years.  Last year I found the wherewithal to dig it out.  Of my psyche.  It's been a rewarding journey, but it won't mean anything if it isn't wildly successful.  Because that is what the narrative deserves.  Except that is not how the world works.  If only it worked the way the books do, like this one.  I used to read this as a child.  A beautiful, immaculate world.  Where boys and girls and nature were friends with each other, and it was one grand adventure worth exploring in all its vividness.
In the end the writer has to live two lives.  The life of the narratives he breathes life into.  I have just published two books in a series on the Oscar Pistorius trial.  The Book on Reeva means a lot to me, perhaps because my mother was also a model and actress, and her life was also cruelly stolen from her.  Whether one can blame a 'perpetrator' in her case in another story.  But even in Oscar I see reflections of myself.  I remember my English teacher - bright-eyed - tripping over her own revelation, declaring to me, in front of the class: "You use writing like a ventriloquist uses a puppet.  You're quiet and meek, and your writing is strong and assertive, it has a much deeper, more authoritative voice than you do."

She was saying my writing was my prosthesis.  Making me taller.  And bolder.  Allowing me to pull my own strings and become more of a mensch.  Except I'm not sure if that was true, or the real me, even if that is how it seemed. The real prosthesis I was wearing was an external neck brace, which yes - had rendered me relatively mute.  Like that thing you put on a dog.  A muzzle, to prevent it from barking.  I'd been muzzled.  Not necessarily by the brace or even voluntarily, but by my classmates, who through the ridiculous apparatus attached to my face, had fun turning me into their Piñata.

How often do we do that, though?  Hit things with sticks and hope we'll get sweets?  Is writing (hitting keys with fingers) the writer's attempt to get sweets?  Or is it something deeper.  Giving a voice to the unvoiced.  A voice to the need to survive.  To overcome the attrition of life, and living.  The most that a writer can ask is to succeed at living and at writing.  The least is to succeed at one, or the other.  The tragedy, is to fail at both.  I haven't, but if I have, there's still work to do.  For me, and for you. 

No comments: