Failure is Vital

Failure is the destination that comes to you when you do not  act.  ~ Kim Stafford

 

hermit_crab2

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.

tfgreen-airport-terminal-infoThe 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.

med cupThis 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.”

Stehekin-Chelan by David Ansley
Stehekin, WA – Photo by David Ansley

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.”

photo 1Now, 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.

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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.

 

Just My Type

Surely the sun shone bright that July day in 1973 when I achieved my goal of typing 50 words per minute with no mistakes. Even if it was raining, I’m certain the sun would have split apart thunderclouds to send a beam of light through the panes of glass in Mr. McGeorge’s classroom.

It had been my mom’s idea for me to take the typing class during summer vacation between my junior and senior years of high school. A small-town newspaper editor, she probably reasoned it would be a useful skill to have, “Because you never know when you might need it.” I was pretty certain I’d never “need” to know stenography (the other summer class Mr. McGeorge taught), but I could accept that typing might come in handy when I went to college to study English.

Hunched over a black  Royal typewriter, pounding its QWERTY keys into the touch memory of my fingertips, I willed my fingers to move faster through drills, repeatedly typing simple sentences. Mr. McGeorge, always in black trousers, a crisp, short-sleeved shirt, and a plain, black tie, strode among our desks. I’m sure he carried a stopwatch, too, for all of the exercises were timed as I attempted to increase my speed while decreasing my errors.

The stakes were high. A few rows of sleek, red, self-correcting IBM Selectrics waited to reward my achievement. I dreamed of the day I’d type quickly enough to graduate to the light gray keyboard that propelled a silver ball of letters across the page. I’d no longer have to lift my right hand off the keys at the end of a line to press a silver arm that sent the carriage back to the left margin; with just a slight stretch of my right pinky, the RETURN button sent the ball of type back to start a new line. Best of all was the X key that magically eliminated miss-typed letters so I could replace them with the correct ones.

Nearly forty-five years later, I don’t worry so much about the speed of my typing. My lightweight, silver laptop automatically corrects many of my typos, or at least signals their presence with a squiggly, red line. I can highlight words, sentences, and entire paragraphs, then move them to another spot in the document—or to the “trash.” Now, I can’t imagine writing a 60,000-word manuscript on the Royal, but I’m glad it’s still around. Like many writers today, I’m infatuated with any kind of manual typewriter.

During a recent wait in the San Francisco airport, I discovered an exhibit celebrating the typewriter as “…one of the great inventions of the modern world…” easing and speeding communication on paper when typewriters appeared in the late 1800s. The exhibit caught the attention of other passengers, too, as a dozen or more paused, like me, in front of the display, jockeying rolling suitcases (some likely holding laptops and e-readers) and snapping photos with smart phones.

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know if the exhibit is still there, but if it is, it’s the perfect advertisement for a book released earlier this month, Uncommon Type – Some Stories by Tom Hanks. According to New York Times reporter Concepción de León, “The collection of 17 stories all include, in one way or another, typewriters, which are Mr. Hanks’s passion.”

There’s a good deal of buzz about the actor’s book. Evidently, Hanks is as good on the keyboard as in film.

“It turns out that Tom Hanks is also a wise and hilarious writer with an endlessly surprising mind. Damn it.”    ~Steve Martin

“Reading Tom Hanks’s Uncommon Type is like finding out that Alice Munro is also the greatest actress of our time.”    ~ Ann Patchett

I haven’t yet read Uncommon Type, but I’m looking forward to it. I’m hoping at least one of Hanks’s stories includes my personal favorite. As a Chicago transplant, it’s just my type.

What’s your favorite type?

 

Sick of the News and Wondering – Why Write?

This morning after I turned the key in the ignition to drive to the gym, I flicked on the radio. It’s programmed for NPR, and as I heard, “Here are the day’s headlines,” I switched to the classical music station. I knew my heart would be pounding soon enough in my circuit class; I didn’t need the morning report to raise my blood pressure.

I’ve been feeling this way a lot lately. Distressed by accounts of wildfires, hurricanes, mass shootings, sexual assault and harassment, earthquakes, dismantling of our health care system, and environmental protections erased, I’ve had to limit my intake of current events. And that distresses me, too, because denial or ignoring does nothing to ease the suffering of our world.

I’m not alone. In the last week, two women I admire have responded to these troubles, each in her own way.

Eileen-Valley-Green-e1504621326715I’ve written previously about Eileen Flanagan, and I found her course, We Were Made for This Moment, extremely helpful in the early months of 2017. A couple of days ago, an email from Eileen asked, “Sick of the news?” Some intense, exciting work had kept her away from media, and when she tuned in again, she writes, “…I went on a CNN binge. It was the spiritual equivalent of chowing down pork rinds and jellybeans right after your yoga retreat.” The news literally made her sick, disturbing her eating and sleeping. Eventually, though, she realized “…it wasn’t just the stories themselves that were depressing; it was the way they were presented, with no role for me to play but voyeur. It confirmed my intention to keep my focus on things people like you and I can actually do to create the world we want to see.”

One of the ways Eileen shifts her perspective is through teaching, so she’s offering a new, four-week, on-line course, How to Build a Nonviolent Direct Action Campaign. It begins October 23, and there’s still time to register. Like her earlier courses, I suspect this one will help participants build their capacity to make change.

In “We Were Made for This Moment,” Eileen discussed a variety of activist roles (helper, organizer, advocate, rebel) and helped me gain some insight into the actions I feel I’m best equipped for and that give me joy. She cautioned that no one can do all the roles, and that if a role doesn’t feed you, burnout is likely.

Hiking Naked Final CoverWriting is both my creative outlet and my way to advocate for change. But as I’ve turned much of my energy to promoting my new book, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I’ve wondered what good it’s doing in the face of the tragedies throughout the world.

Carol-768x1024Another friend, Carol Sexton, reminded me I’m not the only artist raising this question. Her blog post a couple of weeks ago, “Why I Make Art,” wrestled with, “What is the point of this art that I am making?  I see news of police brutality, racial injustice, political corruption, the failure of our current health system, or natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes, and I am sitting at home making a drawing of lace. I have to wonder whether there is something more I could/should be doing as an artist to address the needs of a hurting world.”

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Carol explored her role as an artist further.

“There are artists who focus their art around issues of social justice, and I admire and respect what they do, but that is also not who I am as an artist. I paint images of plants. I draw mandala designs. I carve figures in stone. I am attracted to things that I find beautiful and I want to share them in some way. But how can I justify being an artist when there are so many other worthy causes that need support?”

While acknowledging the privilege of choosing to make art, Carol lists clearly why she continues it. By changing the words “make art” to “write,” the points work for me, too.

  • I continue to make art write because it is what I do, and who I am.
  • I make art write because it is a gift that I have been given, and it would seem wrong not to exercise that gift.
  • I make art write because it satisfies my soul and gives me pleasure on a daily basis.
  • I make art write because part of my livelihood depends on it. In a lifestyle where there is no regular paycheck, every little bit of freelance income counts. And before getting income from art, one must take the time to produce art.
  • I make art write because it brings enjoyment to others.
  • I make art write because in a world full of ugliness and hatred and injustice, there is also much beauty to be shared and celebrated.
  • I make art write not as a direct response to important issues, nor as an escape from thinking or caring about them. I make art write because it is what I do best, and I want to offer my best to the world.

Most days, I trust that if I listen to the voice within, I’ll be led to actions that contribute to the world we want to see. But when I doubt, wisdom from people like Eileen and Carol sustains and inspires me. My hope is that my writing does the same for others.

Whatever your work is, how do you view it in the midst of today’s tribulations?

 

 

 

 

A Creative Nonfiction ABC

Some days, writing is tough, seems beyond my skills, makes me wonder if I’ll ever master the craft of creative nonfiction. As I prepare for the launch of my memoir, “Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance,” I’m much more focused on my calendar, press releases, and book orders than generating new work. I know I’ll return to it, and when I do, I’ll have Karen Zey’s ABCs to guide me. I suggest the same guidance fits for fiction writers, too.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

zz zeyBy Karen Zey

Avoid adverbs assiduously.

Befriend brevity.

Capture sensory details: creamy, crackling or crisp.

Devise dialogue that sounds like real talk. Drop the tags.

Em dash your way to emphasis—and limit those exclamation points!

Flash your essay. Or pen your theme in long form.

Grasp the grammar rules. Ain’t no problem bending ’em on purpose.

Heed your inner muse, but write beyond the self.

Imagine the reader imagining your experience. Read your work aloud.

Juxtapose tender and tough to add depth.

Keep studying your craft—writing is arduous.

Lay down heartfelt moments with lyricism.

Merge metaphors and memories for prisms of meaning.

Narrate with a compelling arc: sweeping tale or braided strands of thought.

Open with a strong hook that hints of more to come.

Punch up your ending with a powerful thought that lingers.

Question every word choice. Quell your penchant for purple prose.

Revise, obsess; revise, lose sleep; revise…

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