Special thanks to Becca Patterson, whose conversation about definitions of success sparked this blog entry.
This is my year of NaNo-failure (which is to say, not brilliant over-achievement). Yesterday and today I skipped writing, and now I’m behind on word count. Weirdly enough, I’m not worried.
Have you ever read Bill Holm’s book The Music of Failure?
It utterly changed the way I think about success and failure, some time back in 1991 or so. I read an excerpt in the now-defunct Hungry Mind Review.
Holm writes about his Icelandic immigrant elders, who were poor in worldly terms but rich in books and music. He talks about the whole stance of the Icelandic sagas toward failure–they absolutely dwell on it, unwrap a long tale of national self-destruction. What he thought American literature ought to pay more attention to, because we’re on the highroad to destruction and haven’t the wit to know it.
He’s one of many writers who saved my life. I read it at just the right time, in one of the deepest dark- nights-of-the-soul I’ve ever lived through, during the first Gulf War and the hideous denouement of my graduate career so-called. I’d been sucked into one definition of success and relearned at great cost what I had known about myself at twelve: that I was a born rebel and had never fit in at school, least of all with the other A-plus students. (When people started saying “think outside the box,” I had no idea what box they were talking about. Even as a kindergartener, not only didn’t I color inside the lines, I drew new lines.)
I had failed at the calling that wasn’t mine. (Yes, there were other things going on, including an institution stacked against me, but at bottom this was the essence of the matter.)
When we find our right calling–as writers or as citizens–we have enormous power. All of us together are the keepers of culture and the makers of history. We set up karma, unknowing; everything we do ripples outward, radio broadcasts that will be received in distant solar systems, centuries after we’re gone. People long dead have saved my life, and changed it. And I haven’t had to wait centuries to see the effects of my own work; in present tense, young people I have mentored are doing amazing things: as writers, as students, as professionals, as citizens.
Recently, I’ve been starting each of my writing sessions by playing the Internationale.
I played it for my nephew. He didn’t recognize it, but said, “Classical, right? Church music.” More right than he knew. I belong to the first church of it doesn’t have to be like this.
And I observe my penitential and meditative season in November. The Black Month, dark and magical, when we dream awake as the year darkens toward solstice. The nights grow longer, and in daylight, a grey unforgiving light plays on the bones of things. It’s just right for storytelling. Plot is bones and karma, and novelists are the technicians of cause and effect.