Planting for Pollinators

I was inspired by one of my own characters to plant a “bee garden,” this spring, and today planted the better part of my wife’s little pocket of prairie with beardtongue, salvia, bee balm, black-eyed susans, coneflowers, thymus, verbena, coreopsis, asclepias, and yarrow. There’s an empty spot for milkweed we’re getting from a neighbor. The stuff in back is prairie grass that’s (mostly) been there for years.

pollinator garden

It doesn’t look like much now, but by mid-summer most of these guys will be 2-4 feet high, in bloom, humming with bees and crawling with caterpillars. My wife even supports this venture though she doesn’t like butterflies, but it will be hard not to be taken in by the potential magic of watching, with our bug-loving boy, a monarch nudging its way out of a chrysalis one late summer morning. Thanks to a book by a local author, he is also expecting bison.

Failure + Yoda + Me

Erin DionneNext up on our tour of failure is Erin Dionne, another “niner” and excellent writer of middle grade novels.

“Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”- Samuel Beckett

I fail every day. Multiple times, actually. My life consists of parenting two small kids, teaching full time at a small college, and writing.

And always, every day, failure.

Teaching that night class? Missing bedtime. Papers to grade? The writing time gets ditched. Invited to write a blog post about failure? Blew the deadline. Taking the kids out on a Saturday afternoon? Well, no failure there—but I fight “I should be working” guilt, nonetheless.

People talk about finding “balance,” or “managing the writing life”. I have looked for the elusive balance—it doesn’t exist (at least, not when your kids are three and six). I’ve put systems in place to manage my life (implementing a bullet journal, being really careful about how I spend my time), and something always comes up to smash my carefully constructed house of cards.

But I still go for it.

YodaYoda’s quote has been my mantra for years. Cheesy, I know, but the distance between “trying” and “doing” is important to me.

Merriam-Webster defines “try” as “to make an effort to do something: to attempt to accomplish or complete something,” and “do” as “to bring to pass.”

Attempting to do something doesn’t cut it for me. I need to bring that book to pass. I need to complete what I start (which is why, when I took up knitting, I wanted to finish that sweater/scarf/hat in one sitting. It was a terrible hobby for me.). But “bringing something to pass” isn’t always pretty, especially the first time around. Pinterest fails are proof of that.

This is also why I’m not all over Pinterest.

Like all writers, I put a lot of effort into my work. I struggle over drafts, agonize over revisions, and stress about reviews, sales, and what comes next. Over and over, I remind myself that as long as I keep doing something, I’m doing something—even if all I’m doing is moving forward in small steps. I eke out those hours—or minutes—to work on my novel. I set aside time to grade those papers. I play with my kids.

Most of the time, I feel like I am failing at all of it: the writing is crappy, I can’t ever get to the bottom of the grading pile, my kids watch too much TV. That’s when Beckett comes in:

“No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I first saw his quote on poet January Gill O’Neil’s blog. As much as Yoda encourages me to keep going and keep doing, Beckett gives me the permission to do so badly. I don’t have to succeed every single time I do, I just have to suck a little less next time. For someone like me, who holds herself to unreasonable standards and sleeps very little, this is freeing.

This manuscript stinks? I can make it better with revision.

This class discussion bombed? Next time I’ll approach the topic differently.

Fed the kids leftover mac n cheese and pizza for dinner? Tomorrow we’ll have veggies.

Have I made my peace with failure? Not exactly; because once you do make peace with failure, you slip into the realm of “trying.” Yet accepting the tenets of Beckett’s failure allows me to follow Yoda’s advice. As long as I keep failing better, I keep doing. And that’s success.

Tomorrow, I’ll fail again. Without trying.

 

Happy 99th Birthday to Beverly Cleary

Beverly ClearyHappy birthday to a living legend.

In celebration of the day, here is a recap of all my posts about Saint of Yamhill from last year, when I re-read many of her books.

A Realization

Homesick for Klickitat Street and A postscript

Spunky Girls (Ramona), Ramona, Relatability, and SerendipityHenry Huggins

Mr. Henshaw

 

On Failure

My next guest blogger is Jennifer R. Hubbard, author of three novels for young adults and a book on writing. I’m intrigued by Jennifer’s discussion of “failure narratives.” We’re conditioned by books and public speakers and various superstars and heroes to believe in ourselves, and to know we can do anything, which might inspire us but also prepares us poorly for other outcomes: ordinary, boring lives. I recall that the eponymous hero of Jude the Obscure was fixated for a time on the folktale of Dick Whittington; a favorite of mine, too, when I was a boy. Of course Jude is bound for a less fairy-tale existence. The minor classic, Stoner, by John “not-the-composer” Williams has a similar theme. Recommend your own in the comments, particularly those that perhaps celebrate the heroic struggles of those ragamuffin wanderers who never find a magic bottle.

jennifer hubbardYou would think writers would talk more about failure, since it’s such an integral part of the job description. We fail a lot. We abandon manuscripts, collect rejections, have projects canceled. Most traditional books don’t earn out their advances, which means they don’t hit their sales goals. We hear “no” a lot more than we hear “yes.”

Failure especially comes as a shock if we’ve had some success first. We expect to fail at the beginning of our careers, when we’re inexperienced. And we love the narrative of failure as a precursor to success; we love an earned happy ending. We love when the earlier pain proves to have purpose and meaning. But we don’t think of success as temporary. Once we’ve arrived, we don’t expect to get kicked out of the party. Why we expect this, I don’t know. We’ve read the cautionary biographies; we’ve seen the biopics. We’ve all seen famous names fade from view. Few people stay on top forever.

While failure sometimes comes from not working hard enough or not knowing enough—the problems we can control and overcome—it also comes from dozens of other little factors we can’t control or even foresee, such as fashion and timing, illness and disaster, culture shifts and technological changes. For every person who follows a formula to success, thousands of others follow the same formula and fail.

The simple fact is that failure is more common and more likely.

I have searched for failure narratives where failure is not just a precursor to success. They are rare and powerful. There’s Susan Allen Toth’s “Summa,” a chapter in her memoir Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, about ambition and perfectionism and loss, about what happens when you don’t live up to your potential, about how a couple of bad days can wipe out years’ worth of work. There is Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, in which the “breaking” overwhelms the “making.”

Loner in the GarretIn I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron wrote one of the most honest essays about failure that I’ve ever read (“Flops”). She was referring to movies, but her main conclusions apply more widely. In short, failure is painful and unpredictable. We don’t necessarily learn from it, and we don’t necessarily forget it. Failure can scar. In short, all the things we fear about failure are true.

Even as I write this, I feel the pressure to steer toward a positive message. Which may be why we don’t discuss the bitterness of failure much: What a downer! But for me, there is comfort in a few of these truths. First, since failure is a lot more common than success, we have plenty of company when we fail. Second, most failures are not fatal. And third: You never know. If failure is unpredictable, so is success. Some people say that neither failure nor success is as important as trying. (A variation of that sentiment even appears in the Olympic ideal, as voiced by Pierre de Coubertin.) I don’t know that I’d go that far—yet here I am, trying still.

Jennifer R. Hubbard (www.jenniferhubbard.com) is the author of three novels for young adults and several short stories. Her most recent book, Loner in the Garret: A Writer’s Companion, discusses failure and success and everything in between. She lives near Philadelphia with an understanding husband, a pile of books and chocolate, and a melodramatic cat.

My Biggest Failure: Letting the B-st-rds Get Me Down

We continue to consider failure through the wise, honest words of science fiction author Lyda Morehouse (and a few from Milton).

Lyda MorehouseIn the Koran, Iblis (Satan) feels Allah tricked him (long story, but he’s super mad about Allah’s newest creation, human beings, and when Allah presented this new muddy clump of animated clay, Satan refused to bow before it, because, he felt, that God was the only one worthy of his devotion. Satan thought that the point of this exercise to check the loyalty of the angels. He thought himself pretty smug for having passed. So, no surprise he feels very PWN’d when Allah says he will be cast out of Paradise for his transgression,) so Satan/Iblis says:

“Because You have sent me astray, surely I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your Straight Path. Then I will come to them from before them and behind them, from their right and from their left…”

Traditional New York publishers aren’t the Great Satan, but I have spent many days counting the ways in which I feel they share similar characteristics.

So.

Many.

Days.

There are a lot of reasons to be bitter about the state of publishing. My personal story of heartache has a lot in common with Iblis’s, at least in my own mind. I actually got into Paradise, which is to say that a prominent publishing house picked up my first novel. That book came out to a moderate amount of fanfare. From there on out, I tried to be a perfect angel. I never missed a deadline. When my editor called and said, “So, this Twilight book is hot. You think you could do something similar?” I happily said yes, even though maybe a tiny part of my soul died a little. I never fought editorial changes to my book. NEVER. “It’s their book,” I told myself. “They paid for it.”

Except once.

And then I was cast out.

I spent a lot of time brooding about this since. Was it just my time and was this the excuse they were looking for? I know that can happen because I narrowly avoided being “quietly shown the door” earlier because I met and bonded with my previous editor. My science fiction numbers hadn’t been what the publisher was hoping for, but we chatted at a convention and he, bless his soul, decided he’d tell me what his bosses had in store for me and helped me switch from science fiction to romance. So, I’d gotten some awesome breaks in the past.

Truthfully, I got fourteen published books out of my run; I was probably simply due for a fall.

But you would not believe the amount of time I have spent turning over details and events around that final moment. Who’s fault was it? Was it fair? Who could I blame? Should I have fought over creative differences earlier? Would that have helped my books be better, and thus improve my numbers? Or, was it a mistake to fight? Should I have continued to capitulate in hopes that things would get better and so that would have yet another book to write under contract?

Any one of those could have been my great failure. But, believe it or not, none of that really matters.

The mistake I’ve made is allowing myself to become bitter. The single most destructive force in my career has been me: my willingness to bow my head and quit.

I always believed that I could never not write, and that’s been true. I’ve been writing ever since my publishing career crumbled beneath my feet, but I gave up striving for publication. There are so many new avenues for writers these days and instead of exploring self or small press publishing, I have stared at the doors of heaven and shaken my fists.

This is a mistake—it’s a failure of resilience, a loss of hope that I’m finally beginning to recover from. I’ve been trying my hand at new ways of writing: a comic book script, collaboration, self-publishing, etc.

And I’m here to tell you that writing can still make me happy. It’s still the greatest job on earth. Ultimately, I have found an answer to the question another writer once posed:

“To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or by opposing, end them?”

It is better to oppose them.

It is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

 Lyda Morehouse writes about that gets other people in trouble: religion and science.  Her first novel Archangel Protocol won the Shamus Award for best paperback novel featuring a private detective.  A subsequent novel, Apocalypse Array, also came in second for the prodigious Philip K. Dick award.  This, however, did not insulate her from failure and so she revived her career as paranormal romance writer Tate Hallaway, author of the Garnet Lacey series and the YA series, Vampire Prince of St. Paul.  She is now attempting to rise from the ashes again. Wish her luck and follow her progress at: www.lydamorehouse.com or on twitter @tatehallaway or via the various places she blogs, including www.tatehallway.blogspot.com

Princess Academy

A few weeks ago author Shannon Hale blogged about showing up for a school visit and learning that only the girls would be attending her lecture. The assumption that boys don’t want to see a “girl book” author is wrong in a million ways, but enough people have responded to this outrage, and I don’t need to add to the chorus.

I know Shannon Hale is popular with young readers, as her name always comes up when I poll groups of kids on their favorite books, but I’d fallen into the same benign sexism as the school: assuming that something that looks like this had no interest to me.

princessacademy

But in following this story, I read a synopsis of Princess Academy and was intrigued. It sounded far more interesting than I would have guessed from the title and cover. Now, after reading it, I know it a thoughtful critique of the “princess” ideal with a strong feminist theme. Its popularity with girls shows that they are quite ready for this message.

Hale’s way into this topic is intricate: girls competing against one another, tempted by materialism, made to feel ashamed and undeserving. Every element feels natural in the story but could lead to rich discussions about how own culture treats girls. It could even be assigned reading in a college class on women’s studies or gender issues. But the sociopolitical aspects are so well integrated with a good story, it doesn’t feel like the whole book is just a frame for a lecture. I’ve read few children’s books that are as deceptively simple on the outside and run as deep.

After a childhood of Disney princesses, girls really need books like Hale’s. I think boys should read it too: because it’s an enjoyable book, and to have an idea of what girls are going through. We know many men arrive at college belligerent and hostile to feminism; why not begin those discussions sooner?

Besides that, few quote/unquote “boy books” show heroes as reflective and conscientious as Miri. Boys steeped in the personal exceptionalism and power fantasies that often shape “their” stories will be ill-equipped for the real world; Miri is a much better role model for all children.

How do we make the leap to a world where boys can read a book called Princess Academy without fear of bullying and scoffing? Men need to read books by and about women, showing that it’s expected of men to care about women, and boys about girls. And schools need to encourage boys to see brilliant authors like Shannon Hale when they’re lucky enough to have her instead of keeping them in class.

Parenting Failure

I’m welcoming my first guest blogger on the topic of failure today, writer and teaching artist Donna Trump. Is it easier to let yourself fail than your children? 

Donna's children
Who could ever imagine letting these beauties fail?

Twenty-plus years ago, my children had an excellent elementary school teacher who was a proponent of parents allowing their children to fail. I dismissed her, of course: What child doesn’t have ample opportunity to fail?

A closer look at my own parenting at the time revealed I was doing exactly what this teacher preached against: I was trying, very hard, to prevent my kids’ failure. From the arguably innocuous retrieval of lunches and assignments when they were left behind; to the poorly disguised control-freak aspect of perennially volunteering in my kids’ classrooms; to the absolutely cringe-worthy hyper-maternal defense mode I went into when one was called out on perfectionism (ya think?) and the other on punching a kid in the face; to the ethically bankrupt decision (after a particularly trying mix of personalities the year before) to hand-pick their Odyssey of the Mind team, which I was coaching—I had to admit, I was guilty as charged.

I did these things to shield my kids from various types and degrees of failure: bad grades, bad learning environments, bad reputations, bad relationships with friends and peers. I did not want them to fail. No one wants their kids to fail. We want to be our children’s champions. We need to be our children’s champions, their advocates, their biggest fans. It hurts, terribly, to watch them suffer—as they will, certainly, when we stop rescuing them from themselves. But having things turn out less than perfectly teaches them something, too.

Studies show that kids who have a chance to fail (and, notably, to recover) tend to develop personality characteristics like tenacity and grit. Occasional crappy outcomes teach them they’ll survive, even when the world’s not a perfect place.

As my kids got older, mouthier, more confident it occurred to me: What if I didn’t  replace that mysteriously crushed iPod? What if I declined decorating the gym for a dance when the child whose dance it was somehow managed to weasel out of the assignment? And what if I even called said child out, publicly, on errors in judgment about both me and that touchy issue of work ethic?

I wasn’t always strong enough to follow through. To understand that I wasn’t competing for popularity. I should have more often doled out a few key phrases: “You’ll live.” “Life isn’t a bowl of cherries.” “Try again.”

I’m sorry about that. I failed my children and myself. Nonetheless I stuck with it. This parenting thing (repeated failure and all) has brought out the tenacious in me. Opportunities for growth have abounded. Failure does that. And now I am more likely than ever to let failure happen.

Unless you want to rescue your children for the rest of time, from a failed job interview, or a failed relationship, or a failed dream, however heartbreaking, I suggest you practice these phrases: You’ll live. Life isn’t a bowl of cherries. Try again. Because if not now, then surely at some point you will no longer be able to rescue your kids in any meaningful way, and they will have only their own resources to draw on.

Disappointing and even devastating things will befall our children, at times as a result of their own doing. I wish this weren’t true, but experience tells me otherwise. One of our most important jobs as parents is to prepare our kids for these practically inevitable failures. Prepare them. Let them practice (while we’re still close by) with bad grades, bad behavior, bad decisions of all kinds. Teach them how to redeem themselves and then let them fail again, while the stakes are still relatively low and while they still come home, in victory and defeat, to us.

And if you happen to be a writer as well as a parent, be heartened: practice with failure—who knew?—appears to cross genres. Take it from me: opportunities for growth, as they say, abound.

Donna Trump writes about failure, success, doubt, faith, Vincent Van Gogh and heart transplants in her fiction and in her blog (www.donnatrump.org). Follow her on Twitter @trumpdonna1.