First Failure

Facebook is constantly trying to connect me to people it thinks I want to know, and most days I ignore it. However, I happened to glance up at the little suggestion box and see author Jane Yolen’s name the other day. Apparently we have quite a few friends in common. But, odd as it is, that Facebook connection goes back a long way, and reminded me of my spectacular first failure as a writer. And, even, technically I suppose, as a spec fic writer.


1993. I am in the sixth grade. I have just moved from a big school district, where I was in a Middle School where kids smoke pot, have sex, and everything, to an elementary school in rural Western Massachusetts where the most prominent features are its tobacco barns. It’s like being caught in a time warp.

I come across as smarter than I am because my old school system covered everything we’re doing already. Every day is torture. I don’t have many friends. I am also approximately the same build as I am now. (When I first entered the classroom, in fact, I was mistaken for a teacher.)

I hate it. I hate everything about it. I write constant diary entries about how much I hate it, in fact. As far as I am concerned there is nothing redeemable about this little country town in Massachusetts, and I’m already begging my parents to send me to private school or just home school me (neither of which ever happened, I should point out; being a pissy twelve year old, my parents wisely let me figure most of the stuff out on my own–i.e. I got over it.)

But at some point in that terrible first year in Hatfield, a writing contest is announced, sponsored by a local author by the name of Jane Yolen. I am out of my mind thrilled with this. This is something I can win. This is a way I can prove to all those kids that I am important, that I am someone. Hell, that I am talented.

Because if there’s anything in the world I know I am the best at (always) it’s writing.

Writing. Ever since I can remember, people have been telling me I am the best writer. Always the best. I’m certain that I will win, no contest. There is no possible way any of these kids can compare to the epic I’m going to write.

And I write an epic. Sort of. In my head it’s genius, but I am lazy and wait until the night before to do most of it (because, honestly, I’ve got this thing in the bag). I scrawl it (map included) on school ruled lined paper, and shove it into a three ring black binder and title it: The Lavender Stone. Except I probably spelled it with an “a”. The final result is a tale plagiarized from The Dark Crystal and the film version of Flight of the Dragons. But I’m confident it will win. There’s no possible outcome other than sheer, perfect victory.

After submitting the piece, I wait. I admit, I feel a little worried when I see some of the other entrants’ works: all nicely typed or printed on computers (likely spellchecked and shared with their parents, neither step which I bothered to take… or couldn’t, due to lack of computers, etc.). But it’s a momentary setback.

I spend my time playing over the ceremony in my head. It will be epic, just like my story. There will be flowers and a parade, and who knows, maybe even a book deal. There are many categories, of course, but one true winner–the best overall. And since I’m certain no one has written anything of the caliber of The Lavender Stone, I arrive at the ceremony with every intention on wiping the floor with the competition.

And hey! My parents are there, sitting right up front. That’s a good sign, right?

Except, suddenly my name is called. The winner in the category of Fantasy and Science Fiction. No, no. That’s not how it works–I can’t settle for a category award. Didn’t Ms. Yolen see the map? Did she not notice my awesome character names and talking dragons? It doesn’t get much better, really. How… how…

By the time I get back to my seat, I’m trembling. When my parents come over to me after the true winner is announced (I remember who it was to this day) I start sniffling. Then sobbing.

I was a mess. I had failed. I would never recover. My parents tried very hard to understand, but they couldn’t. I had failed myself. I was not an invincible writer.

At the time it felt like the end of the world.

Now, I laugh at it, and marvel at how some things really do go full circle. Ms. Yolen was absolutely right in her judgment. I was a lazy writer, and while I had a lot of ideas, the thing was terrible. Even so, it was probably best in the category and she saw that. I had never been challenged as a writer up until that point (thankfully I also had teachers who helped in that department later) and it was a huge blow to my ego. While it’s sad to see the ego of a kid dashed, as a writer I can see how important it was. That failure has driven me to be better.

Sure, rejection isn’t easy. Failure is terrible. But just like the stories we write, our lives can’t be filled with constant success. We can’t learn from success, we can’t grow from invincibility. We are fragile humans, no matter how inflated our egos, no matter how experienced we get. What we write is part of us. I’ve had full novels rejected and short stories I was sure would work rejected, but nothing stung as much as that first one. Because at that point in my life, failure was not something I even contemplated.

I guess, in a way, I’m glad I experienced it young. It was an overreaction, surely, having much to do with the difficulties I was going through at the time (adding insult to injury, my parents had just gone into bankruptcy and were unemployed, and my father was extremely ill). But it also didn’t stop me from writing. It was an early test, sure. But the stories I wrote and sometimes finished over the next decade, though crappy in many ways, got better. Not only that, but they were comforts to me. In a school where I never fit in, even when I left it as a senior, I always had a private place to go.

Had? Have. While there were a few tough years there where writing didn’t happen, eventually I realized that I could share what I do with other people and that other people were out there, doing the same thing, loving it just as much. That community of writers and friends linked me back up to Jane Yolen through Facebook almost 20 years later.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. — Samuel Beckett

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3 Comments on “First Failure

  1. Yeah, I’m always reminded of interesting things on facebook with their “people you may know tool”. I’m glad you shared that story, because I think we’ve all had that moment at some point (Mine was high school, science competition, I held it together even though I hated the boy who won with a passion). Also, I have always adored Flight of Dragons and recently made my husband buy it for me to watch, hooray!

    Rosalind
    Girls Are Geeks

  2. I have a similar story with singing that I’ll tell you about sometime. It’s amazing how one’s hopes can be utterly dashed, then, in hindsight, we realize how much we needed it. I needed my ego taken down a few rungs, but I blamed everyone else in the cast, the director, everyone but myself. (Not to say that my audition was not mind-blowing, just that it was high school and everyone should have an opportunity to have the starring role.) I know that was one of the best “failures” in my vocal career, because it taught me how to take criticism, how to pick myself up and move on. Sounds like your “failure” did much the same for you along the lines of conditioning.

    Thanks for sharing this story!
    Jenn

  3. Nicely written. I could almost feel your raw emotions at the point when you were awarded winner of the category. I think not achieving what we aimed for forces us to understand how how badly we wanted it.

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