Ruth: In case you didn’t go to Midland (Texas) High School, you probably don’t recognize its motto, which is today’s title. Sure, you could argue that the motto’s equally appropriate for a urinal as a high school, but I tend to get the two confused. In fact, I’ve probably had better experiences in urinals than my three years in high school.
But forget high school. In fact, forget it as soon as you can and never go back.
I want to talk about failure of a more general nature. I’m intrigued by it. Give me a nonfiction book full of repeated failures, followed by continued perseverance and eventual successes, and I’m hooked. Has anybody written a book like that? I don’t know. But I always glom onto those stories — like J.K. Rowling’s shivering welfare mother turned into international bestselling author — and revel in them. The protagonists’ sheer doggedness, belief in themselves and stubborn vision are riveting to me. (I know, I know. There are all kinds of nuts whose stubbornness is pure delusion, whose failures only lead to more (warranted) failures. In fact, there’s one of those people in the White House right now. More than one.)
But I’m convinced that you can find redemption in failure. I can remember when our two kids got to a certain age — their teen years, I think — when I realized the best quality my husband and I could still teach them about was failure and how to handle it. What do you do with your inevitable failures? You squeeze out every drop of information you can from them. Then you pick yourself back up and go on. I’m still convinced that this is the most valuable information we could have given them as we became more or less obsolete as a guiding force in their lives. Take the failure and learn something from it — especially about your own shortcomings. Take the failure and go on.
Obviously, today’s interest in failure doesn’t occur in a vacuum. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to learn to deal with rejection, a/k/a failure.
Over the past few days, I’ve had a few of those a/k/a experiences — as well as a few successes. I’ve found that swearing, childish name-calling, carbo-loading, jaw-clenching, long walks, hot showers, Nicorette, spiteful revenge fantasies and heated, detailed discussions of my considerable, somewhat-overlooked writing talents with the cat, Lefty, to be helpful. But then it’s time to put away those childish things and go back to work. Nothing else helps.
If I were to give advice to anybody who wants to write, it would be to take pleasure in what you do. Ridiculous as it sounds, I can make myself happy by writing a felicitous phrase. Just imagine what a good paragraph does for me. I’ll be in a deep, self-satisfied swoon. The point is, that pleasure keeps me going.
The outside world can be harsh. I think we all need the comfort of work that fulfills us. Getting well-paid for that fulfilling work is something else. Maybe that’s where the low aim should be.
(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)