Fate is Fatal

Photo Credit: Author

 

Toni Morrison once said that if you can’t find the book you want, write it.

I only discovered that quote two years ago, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve been living it since I was twelve, when I wrote my first novel in a fit of rage.

Or arrogance. I prefer not to wax philosophical about it.

The reason for my rage was that one of my favorite book series at the time had not finished with the outcome I wanted. So, I decided to write my own version of it. I would like it noted that it wasn’t a very well written novel. For example, here’s a small passage: “We all have a purpose in this life, Creston, but this isin’t ours, to destroy everyone else with our greif this is not what our parents wanted from us and you know it!” That was page ninety-seven, in the middle of a very dramatic scene between two villains.

My misspelling of grief and isn’t was intentional. I not only misunderstood the point of contractions, but I had very strict rules about punctuation back then, (meaning I did not believe in the use of it) so the entire book is just one continuous sentence, consisting of about seventeen paragraphs. I thought it was the most ingenious piece of Literature since The Bible, and thus dubbed it Fate is Fatal. I passed it around to close friends and teachers, hungry for feedback.

That fact strikes horror into my soul, for the reasons mentioned above. Why didn’t anyone just force me to use a period? However, back then, I only felt terror at the prospect of other people seeing my work. Did that mean I was a writer? I spent every spare moment editing and adding to this story, compiling a folder of new ones. They loitered on the home screen of my parent’s old desktop computer, which glitched out every few moments. Yet still I wrote. Still I edited. Still, I handed out my improperly punctuated and grammatically incorrect novel.

I wanted more, but I was afraid of what that meant.

After all, DID WRITERS EVEN GET PAID?

As a child, I had always assumed that writing was a volunteer job, similar to working at a soup kitchen on Sundays or picking up diapers from the side of the road. You know, they’re all very noble endeavors, but not an actual job. It was philanthropy. Beautiful and useless. My fear festered years after that first novel, bled into my self-confidence.

Eventually, I stopped shoving my book into the hands of random strangers, I barely mentioned to anyone that I wrote. Yet I cradled the zebra-striped, broke-spine journal that held my first novel close to my chest.

Every day, I would sit at the croaking, stiff computer chair in my family’s living room. I endured the ten-minute long whir of an old desktop as it prepared itself. Those nights when insomnia crept along the shadows and crooks of my imagination, I would sneak into the living room and write. I filled hundreds of word documents with gibberish, which is to say, stories about flying people, knights, queens and shape-shifting wolves. I read ravenously and wrote reinterpretations of what I had read. It was as if I fancied myself a critic, or a fanfic writer, either one.

I dreaded what this meant, to be so in love with what I saw as “useless work.”

Now, I have added poetry (spoken and otherwise) to the files on a subsequently healthier laptop. I stash my old journals in the bottom drawer of my desk; and take them out only when old fears start to rear to the surface. It is the same terror that beleaguers most writers. I fully expect to stumble awake and realize punctuation is real and I live beneath a bridge. I wonder what ignorant mistakes I’ve hidden between paragraphs and sentences now, and if secretly my readers are laughing at my stupidity. In the spare moments when the world slows enough for me to hear my own breath, I contemplate if this passion that seemed so magical when I was thirteen is only a shadow of what the world truly needs. I wonder if I am only a shadow, gesturing desperately at the sunlight behind me.

Yet even as those fears remain, I understand now what useless work looks like. I have observed people who spent their lives doing absolutely nothing, but they did so for good reasons. Those who undertook hurtful actions with good intentions. I empathize with them, because they, too, fear waking up beneath bridges, the world having spun out of orbit.

Yet that empathy only spurs me to write more. Yes, writers don’t get paid the big bucks (or any bucks, commonly) but writing itself is not useless work. I attribute any and all of my successes to the fact that I love books. The skills I use daily, whether it be for a class project or contacting any number of people for fundraising, I have only because I started rage-writing a novel at the age of twelve.

As Toni Morrison said, I understood something was missing, and decided to fill it with myself. Maybe that was a stupid idea. Maybe I should relocate to the nearest bridge now, but I doubt it would help. I’d only keep filling the voids, gesturing desperately at the light, misspelling simple words, and tucked safely into my bottom drawer would be a broke-spine, zebra-printed journal.

Anthony Doerr and Artistic Failure

Image Credit: Portland Literary Arts. Anthony Doerr gives his presentation to a group of Portland middle school students.

Image Credit: Portland Literary Arts. Anthony Doerr gives his presentation to a group of Portland middle school students.

The Portland-based nonprofit Literary Arts invited  author Anthony Doerr  to Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on November 19th. Pacific University’s MFA in Writing and Silk Road Review had the lucky privilege of supporting this event, and showcasing our magazine in the lobby.

Doerr, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See, fully understands that during the writing process, failure is every bit as important as success. His hour-long presentation included several examples of his personal experiences with failure—experiences that ranged from childhood Halloween costume mishaps to entire deletion and rewriting of formerly treasured passages. His message was simple, yet elegant: failure—as long as it is purposeful in its nature—is just as formative, rewarding, and essential as accomplishment; it is crucial in facilitating progress, much as a torn muscle fiber is instrumental in creating a stronger bond.

2015 PA&L_Proctor and Doerr

Image Credit: Literary Arts. A moment during Doerr’s talk.

If Anthony Doerr taught us anything that years of writing through frustration and desperation hasn’t, it was that the best way to find success is to throw oneself after it, no matter the risk of embarrassment. It was that dedication to the concept of completion, that perseverance in the face of the knowledge that—try as we might—we will never be finished writing, and that’s what makes it so great. Revision is an ongoing process, with an indefinite number of stages and no end in sight. Write, develop, revise, develop some more, revise some more, and repeat as necessary—this is the cycle with which most writers are heavily experienced, and we are no exception. We cannot thank Anthony Doerr enough for reaffirming that this process, futile as it may appear, is completely normal and ultimately productive.

2015 PA&L_Quinton and Doerr

Image Credit: Literary Arts

We would also like to thank Anthony Doerr for his riveting, insightful, and—most of all—humorous testament to the struggle all writers face on a daily basis. Components such as accuracy down to the tiniest details—was it raining on November 23rd, 1946, and department stores have fire alarms yet?—transference of our innermost thoughts to the page, and ultimate satisfaction are all aspects of writing that we have grown to abhor every bit as much as we love. Doerr made a point to mention that he, a critically-acclaimed writer, still finds himself dissatisfied with his end product, simply because it can’t be as perfect on the page as it is in his head. Language is a beautiful thing, but it has its restrictions; by this logic, the potential for perfection is out of the equation, and the pressure of writing is subsequently diminished.

It’s always a relief when someone comes along to validate and assuage our deep-seated insecurities. In addition to delivering an incredible presentation in which he portrayed himself as down-to-earth, experienced, and accessible, Doerr created a connection with every writer in the sold-out concert hall by addressing these common problems with writing. To hear him struggling with the same things that plague us as undergrad students was perhaps the most inspirational message of the evening, and it couldn’t have come at a better point in time.