Welcome back, pets. In Part II of the Rhapsody Failure Memoirs, we’ll rejoin Rhapsody where we left her in Part I, at the awkward cusp of her teen years. We’ll work quickly through high school and college and then “pivot”—meaning abruptly change topics but with a ballroom flourish—to grander failures.
By which we mean MFA writing programs.
Yes, dears, the Sundance Festilog was fun, but today it is time to put on our tweedy jackets with the elbow patches, chew thoughtfully on our pipes and ask a serious, academic question: What does it mean to call oneself a “failure?”
It is a searing indictment of the self, to be sure, but it is also a carefully calculated defensive maneuver. You can’t call me a failure if I’ve called myself one already. Ha, ha! Beat you to it. I know you are, but what am I?
A failure. You’re a failure. And a damned good one, I might add.
Before we begin, we want to offer a warning for sensitive salon-goers: this memoir is rated U for Uncomfortable. Should you find this unpleasant to watch, you can grab one of the cucumber-yogurt face masks I made (top shelf in the fridge), slap it over your eyes, and rejoin us at the last set of four asterisks.
Everyone else: pour yourself a scotch. You’re going to need it.
* * * *
While nothing awful happens to Rhapsody in junior high, the possibility of awfulness goes with me everywhere, sitting on my shoulder like a vulture. I am still writing poems, using the poem-seeing Third Eye, not that I would reveal this to anyone even under torture.
Which I fully expect will happen.
The small circle of girls I consider friends—a status defined by my relative confidence that they would not deny their status as my friends if interrogated—have posters of bands like White Snake and Def Leppard in their lockers. There is nothing to be done about it. It’s junior high. I do not decide what is acceptable and what is banned, only how to arrange myself around these givens in a credible-looking slouch.
Black eyeliner is good for this.
What I actually like is Elvis Costello, but that’s a card I play close to the vest. Had I known that this was my first hipster credential I might have used it, but just as I am starting to recognize the possibilities of liking my music a little weird, I (re)discover folk music. Not the Mighty Quinn of my infancy but the new brand: the Indigo Girls and love poetry, and Womyn friends who will sit with me in large circles in fields, singing and strumming the guitar, although I do not actually learn to sing or play the guitar.
Some of these friends continue their musical studies and become actual lesbians, but I continue to drift, noncommittally, toward indie rock. I get a job shelving books at the library, where I am not closely supervised. This affords me time to read the entire Best American Short Stories series, and every year of the O’Henry awards, in between bouts of desultory shelving.
In high school I keep company with those who, like me, carry leather-bound journals and realize they are among the greatest artists of their time. I strive for a certain distracted wispiness, but am actually much more practical and earthbound than the water-nymph I’m impersonating. Broomstick skirts are good for this.
At the state university I major in Disappointed-Not-To-Be-At-A-Private-College. Everyone is impressed.
For a blurred year I am “on exchange,” studying in bars with real Europeans! I ride a granny bike, with wicker basket, down cobblestone streets, the star of a movie about my own youth. I ditch the baggy American jeans for “club clothes” so tight it looks like I’ve pulled on a baby’s undershirt.
I do the Macarena. I am powerful and young. Who knows what I will do next?
No, really. What am I supposed to do next? I have no idea.
Graduate school is good for this.
* * * *
Ready for the pivot, Readers? Here we go—and remember to keep the beat! A-one, and a-two and:
Flannery O’Connor famously said that far from stifling too many writers, universities do not stifle enough of them. I should know: two try to stifle me, and I cleverly evade them by leaving before anyone can tell me that I should find a day job. (I have no day job as yet to quit, you see.)
I enroll in the first MFA writing program straight out of college, and decide half-way through that my slack and flavorless writing must be the fault of the program (everyone is too nice or something) so I finagle my way into a tonier, smaller program. And there I discover, more or less instantly, that the problem has reappeared. The problem is me.
Story of Rhapsody’s life: wherever I go, there I am again, damn it.
You see, I have no idea what I want to write, only the persistent notion, cultivated since second grade, that I am already a writer of prodigious talent. By now I’ve had a couple of dumb-luck publications (way above my station) that seem to confirm what I know already: I am The Shit.
But it is the shit I’m currently writing and handing out in duplicate to my workshop-mates that tells the real story: I am lost. And increasingly panicked. And I don’t know how to sort myself out. So I flee, having been there just long enough to warm a seat.
To say I feel ridiculous, and sad, about my defection is rather an understatement. But everyone at the tony writing school is very kind. I think they feel genuinely sorry about my predicament and don’t want to witness my implosion any more than I do. Leaving is the right choice.
And cheaper by about $40,000, adjusted for inflation.
* * * *
A Philosophical Interlude: As Rhapsody is probably the billionth person to observe, writing—or more precisely, the belief that one ought to be writing—is hard on the psyche. It’s one continuous ride on a self-constructed zip-line from Great American Bard to wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeTotal Failure. You can travel that distance in seconds and the trip, I have to tell you, is chaffing.
Which drops us back at our memoirs, and Rhapsody quietly slinking away from academe without a great deal more to show for it than a monthly bill from Sallie Mae and a semi-famous set of writing tips.
After dropping out of Writer School for the second and final time, Rhapsody lays low for about ten years. I have friends and jobs and minor-key adventures. I pay back my loans. I am lucky enough to meet Mr. Roboto and then, when we have two tiny children and no time to take a shower much less write, I find that I want to write again.
Why does it take a decade? Sometimes the slice of humble pie we have to eat is rather large. Mine filled the entire bakery case.
* * * *
All right: we’re done. If you’ve been hiding behind a refreshing face-mask, it’s safe to come out now. I just had to include all that because it would hardly be a Failure Memoir if there were no embarrassing disclosures.
Aren’t I very, very brave?
Your skin looks fabulous, by the way.
P. S. Imagine my delight at discovering that during my years of wandering in the wilderness, literary magazines moved on-line. No more paper cuts! Still no readership!
P.P.S. You really should read the writing tips. They are extremely useful. I’ve not yet made full use of the writing-oriented bits, but I haven’t chewed gum or ineptly buttered bread in years.
Drawing at top by Luke Fildes.