Failure is the destination that comes to you when you do not act. ~ Kim Stafford
The opening sentence in the email echoed many others I’d received: “I’m sorry to decline your submission…” It was the twelfth such note for that particular essay, one in which I’d pushed the boundaries of prose structure. I’d experimented with the “hermit crab essay,” a technique coined by author Brenda Miller that uses tools such as menus, how-to instructions, lists, or any number of forms to help a writer ease into tender material in a shielded way, just as the hermit crab’s soft underbelly is protected by the shell it crawls into.
The editor suggested that the frame I’d used—an airport arrival and departure board—didn’t support the content of the essay. My shoulders sagged as I typed “rejected” on my submission tracking form and pondered the critique. As much as I appreciated the feedback (it’s rare to receive any explanation for a submission’s turndown), I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. Perhaps it was, as the editor acknowledged, the nature of “… a subjective industry, and what didn’t work for me might well work for another editor, or another lit magazine.” Regardless, I’d tried something new in my writing, and it still hadn’t found an audience. The essay rebuff resurrected fears of “doing it wrong.”
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Mistakes weren’t welcomed in my family. Missteps at the ballet recital led to embarrassment and disappointment. Straight As were expected—and rewarded. Fully thought-out plans were insurance to ward off the unexpected or dreaded. In a family on a tight budget, experimentation was expensive.
This ethos served me well when I enrolled in nursing school. The potential for mistakes lurked at every bedside, inside each medicine cup, and within doctors’ orders scrawled in patients’ charts. The stakes were high, and my starched, white, student nurse apron didn’t carry power or protection. I dedicated myself to sidestepping slip-ups.
The first time I made a medication error, my hand trembled as I completed the incident report form explaining I’d given the wrong pill to a patient and how I could have prevented the mix-up. The fact that the patient wasn’t harmed by my wrongdoing did little to ease my shame, embarrassment, and fear about future blunders. Worry about mistakes followed my steps in and out of patient rooms, hovered over my notes in charts, and stood in wait when I talked to physicians and families.
Co-workers and supervisors didn’t value creativity when it came to starting an IV, inserting a urinary catheter, measuring narcotics for injections, or reading an EKG strip. More terrifying, if I veered too far from standard procedures or tried an untested approach, a patient might suffer injury—or death. Even if there weren’t any adverse results, not following the rules might require that I notify the doctor and explain to the family; I also could be reprimanded, sued, or fired. Although there might be more than one right way, the pressure to avoid the wrong way weighed on me.
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Twenty years and a variety of nursing jobs later, I felt competent and less worried about errors, but confined by protocols and standards. Dr. Danielle Ofri, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and editor-in-chief of Bellevue Literary Review, writes of similar restriction. “During the tumultuous years of medical school and residency training, I always felt that something was missing, that a part of my experience remained unfulfilled. During a two-year break after residency, I was drawn back to my original interests in literature and writing, and found that these filled the gaps in meaningful ways.”
It was a two-year sojourn with my husband and two children in a remote, mountain village with eighty year-round residents (and no health care facilities) that helped fill the creativity gaps in my life. With writers, photographers, woodworkers, printmakers, bakers, and fabric artists as my neighbors, I found willing mentors to support me through experimentation with creative work. But two decades of upholding science and fearing the consequences of wrong decisions left me yearning for foolproof formulas for “success.” Instead, I discovered the hours and years of practice—and willingness to make mistakes—necessary to achieve a level of skill and satisfaction with watercolor brushes, linoleum block carving tools, pastry cutters, and the pen. I produced mounds of paper for recycling and sheet pans full of misshapen croissants with my flawed efforts.
It’s taken me another twenty years, dozens of rejection letters, and pounds of manuscripts in the recycle bin to believe what an artist/nurse friend claims, “Failure in art only leads to better art.” Author Naomi Epel echoes with, “Bad writing is part of the creative process.”
Now, I devote my days to my desk, scrawling “bad writing” on paper or tapping it out on my laptop keyboard. Just as when I work out at the gym, I begin my writing time warming up. First, I follow a journaling practice I learned from poet Kim Stafford, who learned it from his father, poet William Stafford: write the date; follow with a few sentences about the previous day (nothing profound allowed!); next, jot down an “aphorism”— a brief thought, observation, or idea; finish with words “in the form of a poem, or half a poem, or notes that may never become a poem.”
For the next few minutes, I read writing I admire—scenes rich with sensory detail, poems that tackle difficult subjects in lyrical tones, essays that compel me to look at life from a different angle. Then I select one of the several writing projects I usually have going at a time. I set a timer for 25 minutes and, in the silence of my office, try to put aside beliefs about “the right way.” When the timer chimes, I step away from my desk and fold laundry, wash a few dishes, or stroke my dog’s ears for ten minutes or so, my writing focus shifting to the background. What I don’t do during that respite is make phone calls, read email, or check Instagram. When I return to my desk and re-set the timer for another 25 minutes, I often pick up where I left off with clarity or a new idea about how to proceed.
This practice works for me, but not for everyone. It’s my way to open my door to creativity, but it’s not the only way. Yes, I still stew over fellow writers’ critiques of my words and hesitate when I press the “submit” button to send work to a publication. I know that most of the time, editors receive dozens (sometimes hundreds) of submissions from skillful, imaginative writers who have their own ways to express themselves. The probability is high that I’ll “fail” and that another writer’s way will speak to an editor more than mine. But the accumulation of rejections reminds me that the consequences of my experimentation aren’t so fraught with disaster as when I was a nurse. Instead, the trial and error and re-try process delights, rather than terrifies. And the acceptances, though few in number, affirm that my voice—my way—has a place.
The response to the umpteenth revision and the eighteenth submission of my hermit crab essay surprised me; it was awarded an Honorable Mention in a lyric essay contest and would be published in The Lindenwood Review. I smiled, marked “accepted” beside the essay’s title on my submission tracking form, and opened my journal to write the day’s date.