Silver Linings, A Guest Post by Carolyn Guinzio

Carolyn Guinzio

A Reflection on Failure, Imperfection, and Change

In between working on remote classes for his freshmen year in college, my son has spent a little time installing whimsical signage in unexpected places around our scrap of land in the Ozarks. On a walk not long ago, I came across a sign on a tree in the middle of a field. Painted by hand was the Beckett directive to “Fail Better.”

In the time we’ve been staying home, the field around the tree has passed from early spring to early summer—the field is too overgrown and hazardous to walk through now.

While I was writing this, an email arrived. It brought news of a magazine rejecting a submission of poems. When I came back to this piece later and read the previous sentence, I had already forgotten that happened. Rejections are swift blows, quickly absorbed and leaving no lingering pain. It’s the same approach many of us take to writing: take risks, cast aside failure, forge ahead.

“…cast aside failure, forge ahead.”

A couple of months ago, I wrote a sequence on the anxiety of the impending threat. I have a screenshot on my phone from “Find My Friends,” my “friends” being my daughter and my son. There she is in Miami. There he is in New York. Here we are in Arkansas. There were many mitigating factors beyond mere geography, and writing a frantic, disjointed sequence that moved my terrors from my mind to the page was a balm. It was early March, and I embedded into the sequence the technique of counting backwards as a self-calming device while trying to fall asleep.

Since then, my social media feed is a veritable onslaught of pandemic-related special issues, calls for submissions, anthologies, and the like. Were my own two cents worth sharing? My two teenagers managed to get home in good time and good health, and I managed, through writing, counting backwards, and various other forms of self-medication, to survive with a strong sense of gratitude. It was worth writing. If it’s deemed worth sharing, who knows if anyone would ever have the time or desire to read it. And how much does that even matter?

“It was worth writing.”

Before I ever encountered the Beckett quote, (which is, in its entirety: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”) I always saw rejection as an opporrunity to improve a thing that, by sending it out somewhere, I had stamped as “done.” I’d been given a second chance. Any manner of creative pursuit, and any manner of being a parent, are prime environments for getting something wrong and trying to do better. I don’t know how many more books I’ll write, and I’m in the late stages of raising my kids. Right now, they would’ve been half home, half gone, pulling away in a getting-grown stage. Instead they are, for the moment, as present as they were before they even started kindergarten. It’s a second chance at being less imperfect, and all four of us have plenty of time to consider the question of what constitutes failure.

Guest Blog Post, David Huddle: New Girlfriend

David HuddleWhen I’m not writing I go through phases. Vague uneasiness. Mild anxiety. Crankiness. Nasty beating up of my vulnerable self. Days of brooding.

It won’t take much to get me writing again—it can happen any moment. Whatever it is that snaps me back into what I consider my true and best self is almost always random. Past experience has taught me that the solution is just to try to pay attention to the ten thousand things. So I take a lot of walks. In the City Market parking lot I’ll overhear a girl telling a guy to “Shut up!” in a flirtatious way. That afternoon I’ll have a poem I’m just itching to read aloud to somebody.

In the cemetery through which I frequently walk, I’ll notice for the first time a small stone that says “Ida Grace / Born & Died / October 3, 1935.” For decades Ida’s been down there urgently whispering, Ampersand, ampersand! In a lucky instant my ears will pick it up.

On a road trip I’ll notice lines of a Delbert McClinton song on my iPod—“She’s 19 years old / and already she’s lonely.” Shazam! I’ll have a character in my head–a half pretty and brooding kind of young woman—who’s definitely worthy of a short story and maybe even a novel.

These gifts won’t come along because I’m anxious or cranky or brutally self-critical. They will arrive because the world is generous and our lives in it are infinitely worthy of attention. The best of what I see sometimes comes catty-corner–from off to the side of where I’ve been looking.

But time is stretching out. The last piece I drafted all the way to the end was back in July, and now October’s started saying its goodbyes. I’ve gone through worse stretches, but this is extreme. Last week I decided I had no choice. I have to embrace Not Writing, make her my girlfriend, tell her that in spite of my moodiness I really, actually like her. So I’m taking her on my walks, reading to her in bed, bringing her coffee in the morning. She’s not much for talking, but now and then I get a quick grimace that could be her version of a smile.

Now that Not Writing is my girlfriend, everything I see and hear and smell and taste is intense and radiant. The mockingbirds aren’t just flying and singing–they’re gliding through my dreams. The traffic on Madison Street isn’t just noise and speed, it’s an atrocity that prophesies a future full of rage. This world wants an Old Testament prophet. Out there in the middle of the street, I’ll shake my fist and scream at the cars. They’ll swerve around me and won’t slow down. Out there in the street I’ll be crazy alive.

My girl? For a few days now she’s been making plans to leave town. Having bitten the inside of her lip until it’s sore, now she’s thinking maybe she needs to start smoking. She’s never liked the smell of cigarettes, but she already likes whiskey, and she wants to taste bourbon and smoke simultaneously. She takes a sip, then a drag, inhales, exhales.  I’m still lonely, she says and hangs her pretty head. Oh I can tell you this! If I weren’t a writer–if I didn’t believe that I’m on the verge of drafting up something that’s bound to be really good–I’d be a dead guy.