Thursday, August 04, 2005

notes on "fear of failure"

Last night, columnist/poet/fictionist/Manila Critics Circle Ruey de Vera and I were talking about comics and writing and inevitably, the the conversation veered towards the 2005 Palanca Awards (it's August, and there are already rumors buzzing around about who won - but formal telegrams will most likely be sent our around the second week of the month, with the results announced on September 1st, as always).

ME: I think I lost this year.

RUEY: I know I lost this year.

And we both laughed, neither of us particularly paralyzed by failure this year, because all it means is that we get on with our lives and write some more.

As Hai said in response to my earlier post "Fear of Failure":
Awards don't mean a thing except that 2-3 people liked your story enough to decide to make you win. Impressing a panel of judges is not and should not be looked at as an accomplishment. The real accomplishment lies when people actually buy your books. That's what terrifies me.

He's right, of course. The Carlos Palanca Awards are judged by 3 judges per category. Impress them, like Hai did a couple of years ago with "The Greediest of Rajahs and the Whitest of Clouds", 1st Prize for Short Story for Children, and you win. So there is the matter of somehow playing to the judges' sensibilities, whoever they are in a given year. You would think that things can get really wild in a given year, if 3 judges of strange sensibilities are chosen, but that's not really the case as (from my experience as a Palanca judge) one of the judges usually reprises his or her position from the previous year. That, in a way, maintains a certain sense of consistency. Naturally, my big issue here is that there are too many old school judges (watch me bash social realism yet again), or if they are young people, they are not sufficiently well-read and, like the elders that formed their consciousness, worship at the altar of 1950's sensibilities.

Looking back at my post, I realize that it would make better sense, perhaps, as a series of essays, because what I wrote deals with writers who have won things or been published to acclaim - and does not, in fact, deal with beginning writers. Banzai Cat wrote:
I would have thought that as writers, the hardest part is the beginning when he/she thinks: "Is what I'm writing worth it? Will people like what I'm doing? Am I really a writer or just a wannabe? Am I really saying anything, much more saying anything new?"

I figure that once writers have begun the cycle of being published and writing once more, the idea of failure becomes less harsh since at the very least, he/she can say that they've reached the first milestone.

Thus, it's a sad thought if writers become afraid once they've reached their goals to reach past their limits, considering most people never even try to reach for their own dreams.

He asks the questions that all writers ask, as they sit down to write, regardless of pedigree, "level" or achievement. There is always that moment of doubt, questioning the very reason for writing, scrutinizing just what we are trying to say.

It does not stop when you are published or get a medal or see your name on the shelves of Powerbooks. It's just that more experienced writers speak less about it, or do their angsting in quiet solitude, or just ignore the thing and plunge on, trusting their talent and craft to get them through. Some writers write without deliberate agenda - and it is only the process of literary criticism that reveals what the subtext of the author's text was. Some cannot write without knowing just what they are trying to say. But the important thing is the act of trying, of writing anyway.

Beginning writers who are paralyzed by fear of failure are afraid of rejection, of the being informed of the unsavory truth that their writing needs more work, of losing a competition. Like veteran writers, they fear bad news, but in the end all they need to do is to act.

Some, as Jonas writes, are fearful of another thing:
One of the things I'm scared of is running out of things to say (or draw). Which I guess is the main reason why I try to make it a point to try out new things or look at stuff from a different point of view.

There is tremendous pressure on writers and artists to always be new, to have create something previously unread or unseen, to express startling new insights about the world around us and our experiences within it. I share a similar perspective with Jonas: we both look at stuff from a different point of view. I don't think there are really any stories in the world. Once you strip them down to their bare essences, you can list and catalog each story type and trope and see that what makes stories interesting are the variations, combinations, and ultimately, how something old is told anew. Fear, for me, would be justified, if we tell stories in new ways, and instead, like prayers by rote, recite the same old things in the same old ways.

Sean brings up another point - financial viability:
Ironically, I've run into a number of talented, aspiring writers who don't quit because of fear or embarrasment, but because they don't find writing to be worth as much time and patience as other endeavors. I know a very good poet who gave up writing in order to sell insurance, for example.

The big question here probably involves exactly who we are, why we write/draw, and how the form changes us. That ultimately determines whether or not we actually belong in the field, I think.

Creative writing - pure and not helped by various sidelines and non-creative freelance writing- in the Philippines is not a viable means of supporting yourself and your family. That's the sad truth. Unlike first world countries were authors can live off the royalties of their books, here, like Sean's friend, you've got to eat, so you're better off selling insurance.

There are two attitudes we can espouse, given the Filipino context: First, to write for love, not money. Write because your spirit demands it. Write because you are a writer. Damn the realities of life.

And second, simply accept that fact that a pure literary writer cannot survive by creative writing alone and keep on writing anyway, making sure to supplement your income by other means.

There are other variations too, like getting a sponsorship or a kind of literary "Papa" (haha) who will provide for you while you write.

I live by the second option, because, really, there's no other way to go about it. I have a couple of businesses that generate funding for myself and my family's needs, and they permit me to write without being fraught with worry that I need to write X number of books, stories, articles and such or face starvation.

Rolly asks and opines:
What about being burnt out? (Is that the correct form? You know what I mean, right?) There have been singers I used to admire who never created anything for a long time. Maybe that's just another big word to justify the fear of failure, huh?

Yes, what is all the accolade about? It's not really that lasting. You stand up and they clap. Andy Warhol was even more generous to give us fifteen minutes, wasn't he?

Burn out is also a reality. It's similar to my "Silver Bullet Theory" that I shared with my best pal Vin, stating that you only have a small number of non-regenerating Silver Bullets (works of art that are absolutely earth-shaking) - and that after you've exhausted them all, you have nothing more to say or write or create. It's just a funny little thing (I don't believe it myself) but it does bring light to creatives who, after a dazzling run, have suddenly nothing more to give, despite their best effort.

Or, as Rolly wrote, it could just be another expression of the fear of failure.

Now after all my accolade-bashing you might think I'm anti-this or anti-that. I'm not. All I'm saying is to keep things in perspective and not to let awards or fear of failure get to your head. It's one thing to actually compete and fear losing, and it is another thing to not compete or write or try at all. I'm all for trying, competing, writing, fighting. In the end, no one but you can make you write. You motivate yourself. You find or create your own reason and rationale for writing.

By the time I went to bed, I was dizzy thinking about all of these things - a had the beginnings of a new play and was excited about the new novel. But what really made me smile was the memory of this comment, this gem from Anonymous:
Wow! Makes me glad people think my work is crap. :P

Now there's a note from the peanut gallery.


Blogger Unknown said...

I agree with you, awesome Your post is highly informative and interesting, thanks for sharing this valuable information.

7:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing and posting this. Funny how a message written years ago was able to reach and speak to me now. :)

12:12 PM  

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