Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Turning 30, The Inexorable March of Time, Promises, and Seeing the Success in Failure

Today is my thirtieth birthday.

Our culture puts a lot of emphasis on certain milestones, and some of them do make sense. At eighteen, you are almost completely legally an adult. You can participate in our Democracy by casting your vote. You can purchase pornography and tobacco products. You can have sex with anybody you want (who is also over the age of eighteen) and nobody can tell you otherwise (except, of course, for the other person involved, and if they say "no thank you" it's best to listen). It's the age that most Americans graduate from high school, the age at which many of them set off on their own for the first time ever. Now, sure, you can't drink yet, so, you're not fully an adult. But still.

At twenty, nothing really happens except that you're now in your 20's, which is supposed to involve some amount of maturity? Maybe? I don't know. There's really nothing special about twenty when you get right down to it. It's just a number with a zero in it. A year later, you can finally have a drink.

At twenty-five, you're a quarter of a century old, which was alarming to me at the time. Something about being able to easily quantify my age in terms of a century, albeit in terms that were fractions thereof. Also, your car insurance rates drop because apparently that maturity you're supposed to start acquiring in your twenties has kicked in notably in your driving skills. Or something.

Then what? Sure, thirty. Three-oh. Now you're really and truly a grown-up. I fell victim to this same fallacy. Now that I'm thirty, I'm a grown-up. A grown-up who is wearing a T-shirt with the name of a band I have liked since I was fifteen. Half a lifetime ago.

Thirty year olds can wear flies, right?
And I'm listening to records. Grown-ups, in all their practicality, should not own records. They take up so much space. And they're expensive. And they require archaic equipment to enjoy. Equipment that has pretty specific space requirements. I'm looking across the room at my record player, and I can see a guitar I have had since I was thirteen. It's covered in stickers. I still play this thing. Grown-ups who have guitars keep them in their cases. Grown-ups with guitars do not have stickers on their guitars. They're embarrassed by this sort of thing being leftover from their youth.
So many things about this picture scream "I'm an adult!"

But I also see pictures of my family; my wife, our daughter. A daughter who is growing up so fast. These pictures are over  a year old, and she barely looks the same now. She's a little girl, not a baby. She's currently napping. I am awake mostly through sheer force of will. In a little while, she'll wake up and come downstairs and she'll want to dance to the records I'm playing. Because I'm cultivating in her an appreciation for real music, not just music specifically marketed towards children. Side bar: why is this a thing? Music exists in the world, yes? I understand the idea that some music is not appropriate for kids. I get it. I can make that decision, I think, right? Like, if she came down here right now, I'd keep this Arcade Fire record on. Next, I'd play Broken Bells, or Simon & Garfunkel, or Fleet Foxes. I would not play AC/DC or Childish Gambino or 10cc. Not that there's anything wrong with the 10cc record I have, it just seems a little crazy for a two year old, no? I mean, I'm not sure I'd play any of the Dixieland or Hot Jazz I've got, just because she might dance too fast for me to keep up.

But Alice Cooper is perfectly fine for Jules. Right?

I guess what I'm saying is that, thirty is just an arbitrary number. Twenty-eight years separate myself from my daughter, and then thirty-one years exist in the space between me and my father. The three of us could groove to the same record at once. And we have. And we will again. Why should it matter, these designations? Now, talk to me on my 42nd birthday. That will be a whole other story. But for now, hey. So I'm thirty. Yesterday I was twenty-nine. I don't feel all that different. Okay, so at twenty I was able to spend hours at the City Museum in St. Louis, crawling around and running, and feel fine the next day. And now, having spent two hours there this past Saturday, my right shoulder could fall off at any moment. But that's fine. It happens. So I'm thirty. And a year from now, I'll be thirty-one. I'll still be long-winded, I'll still be listening to records, I'll still be writing.

Oh yeah, writing. I made a silly promise about writing and turning thirty. That silly promise was a hard deadline on completing my novel. Silly because I'm afraid of completing anything for fear of it being a failure. Silly because I would rather sleep in than get up early and work on it. Silly because I have a family whose company I enjoy far more than the self-inflicted torture of writing for hours on end. Silly because a good novel takes a good long while to complete. Silly because numbers are arbitrary (see above).

So it's been a while since I started writing it, I guess. The full history reaches back to the spring of 2008. I wrote a short story called "North for Salvation." The following autumn, I took the same characters and general situation, and changed the name to "Before Rock Attained Perfection." Then I stretched that concept out over the next two  and a half years, changing the name to What Place to Rest the Search, a nod to a Led Zeppelin lyric from the song "Achilles' Last Stand," which figured prominently in the narrative. Then, about a year ago, I threw out what I had written in first person and changed it to third person because, as I discovered, I had one main character and a whole lot of action taking place in the past. I wanted to tell a more present story and get into the heads of the other characters (who, in the first-person narrative, were flat and boring). First person worked for the short story versions. Not, it seems, for the novel, for which I have yet to find a good title.

Then I set an arbitrary goal, to have the whole thing completed by the time I turned thirty. Today.

Woops. I guess I failed.

Or...maybe not?

I could have easily finished...the original first person version. But then it wouldn't have been as good, in my opinion. You know what I mean?

So, I'm inclined to call this "failure" a "success." But, how? Well, that's a very good question, disembodied authorial stand-in for the audience! And I'll tell you how!

Writing is a process of discovery. Discovery of the author's limitations. Discovery of the author's strengths. Discovery of those in the life of the author who are supportive, and the subsequent partial or complete fare-thee-well to those discovered to be unsupportive. It is also about the discovery of the story. Sure, I sat down with an outline and a basic idea of where this story was going to go. And for the most part, I've followed it. But it's grown, and changed, and I've had to make adjustments along the way. And though in some ways I am farther from finishing a novel than I was when I threw out the first-person version, I am also much farther along in developing a real story that might have some teeth, legs, arms, and a torso as opposed to just some very misguided feet. That's a very strange metaphor, I'm sorry, but it makes sense to me, and I had that metaphor rattling around in my head and, trust me, it did not need to ever find its way into the book. Ever.

Sure, I missed my goal. But as the goal approached and I started to panic, I felt I should take a step back and look at what I had accomplished. The fact is, pushing myself toward the goal was more important than reaching the goal. Pushing and pushing got me off my lazy ass. I don't care if it's not perfect, now. I will finish it, and if it fails to sell or whatever, that's fine. I'll just write another one. Or a play. Something else. One failure doesn't mean an end to an endeavor, or exclude success from the future (see also my first attempt at college).

I even think I could have finished the third-person version of the book by today if I had been slightly less meticulous. Though, had I been more meticulous, I'd be about half-way through the second chapter. The point is, if I had rushed to get it done, I'd have a complete novel that I was only thirty-fifty percent happy with. Right now, I've got about forty percent of a novel that I am almost completely satisfied with. That's a fantastic feeling, believe it or not. A feeling that far outweighs any frustration I may have felt at not completing it.

As Wayne Gretzky once said, "You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don't take." And we all know how awesome Wayne Gretzky was.
Wayne Gretzky was one of the 19th Century Russian Romanticists, right?