Learning To Lose
“She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all” –B. Dylan
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
A month ago I was on a roll. It started when I became frustrated with the glacial pace my memoir had been taking as it crawled from agent to editor and back to me, sleaker with each draft, yet seemingly no closer to publication than when I started years ago.
I took publication into my own hands, on my blog and Open Salon and began to get immediate positive feedback on my writing. I let my agent go and within a week had an EP, then another and another, and then an urgent email from Salon.com wanting to publish an excerpt from my memoir. The comments, which can be fierce on Salon, were generally glowing. I sent the piece to prospective agents, who loved it. Radio Luxembourg got in touch wanting to adapt it for a piece for international distribution.
I had a needling fear – that the success of the piece was only due to it’s being about my famous father, and not me. But then Salon chose several more of my pieces for EPs – things about music, with no mention of my father. I was high. Bernadine S. recently had the courage to write about her success on OS, and a number of people added their comments on how tough it is when you get that EP. They made an important point – success immediately creates a burden of expectations for what you will be able to come up with next.
My first reaction to an EP was not how tough it was, but OH YEAH! And it doesn’t stop with the initial rush. Success is a drug whose effects are not unlike those of cocaine. The euphoria is followed by unreasonable optimism, arrogance, even megalomania. My book is going to be published, any day now! It’s going to rocket to the top of the bestseller list!
Even as 60,000 were viewing my piece on Salon and congratulatory emails were flooding my inbox the other shoe was already dropping. One agent, then another who had enjoyed the piece did not like my manuscript. And I couldn’t ignore their criticisms. I realized my memoir was a hodge-podge of different drafts and edits and periods in my writing. I stopped showing it and decided to rewrite it from scratch. Ah well. What’s another draft after 5, or 6, or is it 7? I can’t remember.
Meanwhile the EPs at OS stopped, and with them my readership declined. Then came last week. I was interviewed by Radio Luxembourg at the local NPR station by a guy in Amsterdam. As I sat alone hearing his questions from across the ocean through headphones I forgot everything I’d prepared with the producer. Instead I rambled, revealing things I did not want public, which elicited follow-up questions I refused to answer. A mess.
But I was looking forward to the weekend, to my first music gig in a year. It was the wedding of the daughter of the drummer from my college band. He and I and the bass player played together last summer for a party celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary. Though we hadn’t played together in 37 years, we clicked, and had the pleasure of watching all the “silver foxes,” led by my wife as they shook it up to “Twist and Shout” and “Shake Your Moneymaker.”
From the moment I took the stage last Saturday until I left four hours later it felt like a disaster. My fingers were cold, and I couldn’t get them to play anything I heard in my head. I thought – I’ve disgraced myself. I began to seriously consider giving up the performing I’d only recently taken up again after a long hiatus. The next morning another old musician friend came to play for the service and I told him, shaking my head, “Had a real off night….” He said, “Isn’t that just like a musician. Everyone says, ‘Hey that was great,’ and all you can do is whine about how terrible you were.”
That woke me up. I remembered how when I was young failure had caused me to make rash decisions. At 12 years old I lost my place in apiece at a piano recital and gave up lessons. In the ‘70s playing in a Top Forty Funk band my failure to iron my pimp’s outfit and properly blow dry my hair and keep a smile on as I played the same chugga-chugga-boomalacka riff on my Tele over and over for 20 minutes at a time drove me from performing. Shortly after that a weasel manager with no musical talent or credentials told me I couldn’t sing so I stopped singing. When faced with failure the only thing I knew how to do was run away.
The culprit in those painful moments is the part of me which has at some point snorted the success drug, and still believes it’s unreasonable expectations. I did that, so I CAN DO ANYTHING! No, I can’t. I can only do what talent, long practice, and luck will allow me to do. Oh yeah, and past failure, too. Because that’s what real pros know. You don’t learn to give a good radio interview without blowing at least one – that’s provided that you learn from the first. So next time, I’ll bring notes.
Practicing a half hour of guitar a day for a couple of months doesn’t give you the kind of chops you get from playing four hours a night. So unless I want to go find the contemporary equivilant of a Top Forty funk band, I’m going to have to accept that I can’t do what I once did on guitar. And if I want to get a book published in today’s publishing environment, I better be able to write my ass off.
I come at this business of winning and losing, success and failure bearing a heavy load inherited from my father. He was about success, and no amount was enough for him. Although every book he published after Death of a President became a bestseller, and he got tons of fan mail and plaques and prizes, he died still ruing the fact that he never got a Pulitzer. I know if he’d gotten one, he’d have wanted two. And that still wouldn’t have filled the hole in him.
Throughout my life, watching my father’s suffering on the roller coaster of loss and gain, experiencing my own, I tried different ways to escape. I’ve run from the whole game. I’ve put one hand in and looked the other way, pretending I didn’t care, wasn’t really playing. Now as I approach 60, I’ve decided for some reason to go all in, knowing fully there will be hell to pay no matter how it turns out, whether it be a book between real covers or my own self-published ebook. If only 10 people buy my book, I’ll feel like nothing. If a million buy it, I’ll feel great….for about half an hour. Then the realization will creep in, that my life hasn’t really changed. And when it comes time to write another book, I’ll feel even worse than nothing, knowing I’ll never top the first one.
But I do know one cure for these summertime blues. I’m taking it right now: writing. When I’m fully focused on this practice, there’s no room to worry about how many ratings or comments I’ll get. While I have no control over how my piece will be received, I can control the writing process. Writing provides a high that, unlike the buzz from external reward, leaves no hangover. On the contrary, this feeling of well-being lingers for hours after I’m done for the day. No hangover, but it’s an addiction, including withdrawal symptoms. If I don’t write for a few days I get jumpy and cranky and know it’s time for another fix.