I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be an artist, and I keep returning to the importance of failure. To endure in creative pursuits, you have to become so comfortable with falling down and getting back up that you come to trust your failures as signposts, guiding you along the way.
I came across this quote in an old favorite book of mine, and I instantly copied it down and stuck it on the kitchen wall in the corner that is currently doubling as my writing space:
“You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of your work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.
Perform every action with your heart fixed on the Supreme Lord. Renounce attachment to the fruits. Be even-tempered in success and failure; for it is this evenness of temper which is meant by yoga.
Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender. Seek refuge in the knowledge of Brahman. They who work selfishly for results are miserable.” — Bhagavad Gita
Much of that quote is mysterious to me, but it is a mystery that I want to live in. I currently have so many writing projects that I always have a deadline to meet, and I just want to dig in to the work, creating for art’s sake, not my own gain.
One of my main philosophies is that failure is good for the soul, and I got several chances to put that into action this week. I post a lot about things I am excited about, opportunities that have come my way to find new forms of expression. But since the point of all sharing, for me, is to be known, rather than to create some kind of “self brand”, I feel compelled to share my failures, as well.
I found out this week that a magazine issue that I submitted to is coming out, with no mention to me about my article, and silence always means they took a pass on it. And just yesterday I got an actual rejection letter for a reading series that I really wanted to be a part of. To be honest, I was just glad to hear from them one way or the other, since many publishers never bother to let you know.
Many books that we now consider classics were rejected upwards of 25 times: Stephen King’s Carrie, JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Catch 22… the list goes on and on. I’m not suggesting that I am at their caliber, but rather that the company of rejected writers is varied, lively, and well populated. So, I know that I am not alone, and that failure is an important part of the creative life. But it still stings, especially when it was something I really wanted, and/or a piece I love and want to find a home for, like trying to place a beloved pet you can no longer keep.
I’ve also been coming up against failure in my personal life — my husband has been felled with a really terrible virus for over a week, and I’ve had to take on many of the roles he usually does. Despite being a work-from-home mom, I’m really quite terrible at domestic pursuits. I’m a sad cook, and my housewife skills are quite lacking. There’s also many things I can’t physically do, like carry our week’s worth of laundry up the three flights of stairs to our apartment, or meet my writing deadlines while also getting Olive ready for the day.
Therefore, I’ve had to ask for help. And this, my friends, is one of the most beautiful things about failure. Without the experience of not being able to do everything perfectly in life, you’d never make space for others to step in and know the intimacy that arises when one person helps another.
This week, my friends have been so generous and specific in their support to our family. One couple offered to get us take out, and let us pick the place and order it ourselves, having it delivered right to our door. Another family paid for Olive to have a morning with their nanny, so I could clean the house and have a few moments to myself after a long week of caretaking two sick people. And a couple from church acted as chauffer yesterday, helping me pick up my sister and niece from the airport. Several friends watched Olive for small stints while I worked or ran errands impossible to do with a toddler. In all of these instances, I felt respected, seen, and buoyed by their help.
Just today, it took me TWO ENTIRE HOURS to get my child to nap. I kept putting my face in my hands, judging myself for the way I’ve chosen to sleep train, frustrated with her and with myself. But I persisted. And, she sleeps.
You may have noticed I mentioned in passing that my sister and niece are here, which is what made my daughter so excited that she had such trouble napping. We are both overjoyed to have them here, and focusing on what I currently have — an unexpected gift in the form of a family visit — is helping me through a period in which I am tempted to look only at what I lack.
You see, I trust failure and I trust loss. I often find more solace in them than I do in success and gain. I’d love to balance that out, to find more of the even-temperedness the Bhagavad Gita argues for. In the meantime, I’ll settle for feeling all of it, allowing space for doubt as well as gratefulness.