Just a couple of writers on a road trip through life. Hop in, hold on, and don’t forget your rain boots.

Friday, October 5, 2012

How it all started: Using failure as inspiration

When I was twenty, I knew I was a genius. Every word I wrote was a nugget of gold wrapped in chocolate wrapped in cheese and delivered by Chris Hemsworth dressed as a ninja. I knew that any day, a publisher would call out of the blue and beg, coax, wheedle, threaten, cajole, and throw promises at me just so I would let them be the ones to publish my masterpiece.

Thirteen years later, I’m still waiting for that call. About a month ago, I pulled out a bunch of old stories and re-read them. I could say I stumbled upon a treasure trove of beautiful prose, a plethora of brilliance and fictional genius. But that would be a big old fat lie.  The stories I found were less like gold wrapped in chocolate and more like decomposing corpses wrapped in zombie juice. Earnest, sentimental—dripping with romantic-comedy-style contrived plot lines. Stories so ridiculous even Katherine Heigl would turn down a role in the movie version.  

I think the best one I found dated back to the fourth grade. That’s how long I’ve been trying to write the immortal masterpiece. I saved every bit of writing, which means my garage is officially a fire hazard. Here is the beginning of my girl detective story:

“The phone was ringing. It wasn’t unusual for the phone to ring. No, it was unusual because IT WAS FOR ME! I dashed to the kitchen and picked up the reciever [sic]. I was on the case!”
I used caps a lot, to emphasize the point, and the exclamation points just make it that much more exciting. 

Or this one, a report on Louisa May Alcott:
"Louisa May Alcott was an amazing girl writer. She was a big success because she never gave up on her dream of writing. That is because, like most people, she knew that writing was the best job ever. She didn’t get famous all at once, but luckily once she was dead she became world famous as a major author.”
Complete with original artwork

Luckily, once she was dead.  Writing is the best job ever. This was before I ever read about Charles Bukowski using rejection letters to paper his apartment (which shows he has fabulous decorating skills for a misogynistic alcoholic) or Stephen King pinning his many rejection letters to the wall.

But reading all that made me think that if I’ve been trying that hard for that long, now is not the time to run up the white flag and go down with the ship. I was always insanely jealous of those people who knew from the time they were two what they wanted to be when they grew up. They had direction and drive to be a firefighter or a doctor or a cab driver. I didn’t think I was one of those people.

 I’ve tried about seventeen different careers other than writing. For realsies, that’s not just an exaggeration. I changed my major on my junior college transcript eleven times. That means I actually took the time to walk into the admissions office and wait in line just so that the top of my transcript would say psychology major, or accounting major, or criminal justice, or dental hygienist, or musical theater, or history, or English, or nursing, or photography, or nutrition, or business, or marketing… you get the idea. Those are all real things I once wanted to be, by the way. I don’t know how I ever expected to be an accountant, since I feel like math is something my dad invented to torture people who just wanted to eat their tuna noodle casserole without being quizzed during dinner. I enrolled in three business courses  entirely peopled with guys who looked like they were there to learn how to embezzle money. 
Remember floppy discs? Oh yeah, I saved those too.

I tried to be a lot of things. I failed. A lot. And I realize now it’s because I always knew what I wanted to be. I just never had the guts to do it. Never had the confidence to say it out loud. Because it sounds sort of ridiculous. I want to make up stories and write them down for a living. Not just for a living. For my life. It’s something I can’t stop doing. It’s impractical. I know the odds of success, but I hate those people who tell you not to do something because your chances of succeeding are about the same as your chances of getting struck by lightning while winning the lottery and signing your contract for the NBA.

 My daughter tells me she wants to be a rock star mermaid when she grows up. The mermaid part would only kick in when water splashed on her, so she’d have to be very careful not to perform her rock star stuff in the rain. And I tell her she will be an amazing mermaid rock star. I tell her I will come to her shows and sit in the front row and make sure no one gets water on her and activates her mermaid-ish-ness. I tell her I can’t wait to see her perform. I say these things without laughing a bit, because dreams are serious things, when you get down to it, and success happens to people who believe in themselves.

Because here’s what I figured out: I don’t have to be someone I’m not. I’d rather fail at something I want to do and love to do than fail at being an accountant or ice dancer or chicken farmer. And every time I fail and get back up, I have to dust myself off and say yes, I’m a writer. I’ve been a writer my whole life and that’s not going to change. I keep going, because failing just means I am trying. Somebody really smart once said something about how you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take. I’m not sure who said that but it might have been Jesus or Benjamin Franklin. Or maybe Wayne Gretzky. It doesn’t really matter. It’s true. If you don’t believe you can do something, you stop trying. And failing. And getting back up and trying again. I may get lucky and become a world famous author once I’m dead. But I’m not giving up.

What is your big dream? Leave a comment here and tell us about how you'd make the best circus freak the world has ever seen. Julie Simmons-Wixom is a writer, championship sloppy joe maker, and bear wrangling enthusiast. Email her here if you want to talk more about how you are also an undiscovered genius.  

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