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Wow! It’s Wednesday! Baggage and Failure Panics


Photo Credit: litherland

A few scattered thoughts:

So I’ve been thinking a lot this week about baggage. On Monday, I was worrying in the shower about how to pack for almost two weeks of vacation with a baby when it occured to me that I didn’t really need that much. A few sundresses, a couple of swimsuits, a couple of earrings, underwear, a toothbrush, two pairs of shoes, pajamas and my Kindle and I’d be fine. I didn’t need make-up, I could get by on hotel shampoo and conditioner for a few days, and did I really have to pack two or three just-in -case outfits as was my wont? No, I didn’t. If I got to where I was going, and I found that I didn’t have something I needed, I could just go out and get it. I don’t need to carry a lot of baggage — especially if the airline is charging me for every suitcase I check.


Yesterday after a particularly difficult writing session, I was changing Betty and berating myself for not being a good enough writer to pull off the concepts in my head, when I thought about this workshop monologue that I had presented at Carnegie Mellon while I was a grad writing student there.

I thought that I had written a great script. I had an awesome actor performing the monologue and an friendly director that I had been wanting to work with for quite a while. It was going to be brilliant. Rehearsal went well, and I wasn’t worried about the performance.

But when the workshop monologue was actually performed in Theater Lab, suddenly the scales fell off. Even before the critique session began, I could see everything that was wrong with the play. The main character over-explained himself. The jokes were too hard to get to. And though the subject matter was controversial and interesting,  the pacing of the piece as written sucked the sexiness out of it and rendered it kind of boring. Also, though the concept would seem unique to an outsider, if you knew my work, it was a bit of a retread, and these people knew my work, so it all came off as rather stale.

The senior actors, grad directors, and my fellow writers went to town on it. It was hands down the biggest failure of my grad school career. And I remember how surprised I had been afterwards  … to feel relieved.

Up until that point, I had received high praise for everything I had ever did, and every time anything I wrote was presented I worked myself up into a frenzy worrying that it would be just a complete and utter failure. This monologue was my worse nightmare come to life: An intimate audience, a major face plant of writing on my part, and then I had to sit there and hear them talk with each other about why they hated my piece so very much for fifteen minutes, which doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but trust me it is when people are talking about your writing negatively — especially if you deserve the criticism.

Before that play, I had always thought I’d throw myself off the roof if my work flamed out in front of a large audience. Two weeks into my first year of the Dramatic Writing program, my head professor called me into his office and said that he was worried about my 10-minute play, which would be the first thing I ever presented in Theatre Lab. He said that he wanted me to really work with my 2nd year advisor for the week, Kyle from “Frank’s Wild Lunch” to get it up to scratch. I nodded my way through the meeting like a bobblehead then cried in the bathroom afterwards for half an hour. Then I called my best friend, Monique from “Political Physics” and talked with her for an hour about how my first project for grad school was going to be an EPIC FAIL (or something like that since that usage wasn’t in the lexicon back then), which would probably get me kicked out of the program. Then I went home, and told my roommate, Roya from “Fierce Foodie” about it while she cooked dinner. Then I met with Kyle that weekend and took all of his notes and spent days and days rewriting a 10-page play.

That play went brilliantly. It was well-received in school, and it went on to be featured in a one-act Off-Broadway festival. To this day, I consider it one of the best things I’ve ever written. And that same fear of failure had helped me write one good enough piece after another, until that day in Theatre Lab, when my monologue crashed and burned so bad, I knew I would never touch that particular play again.

Still, as I walked dry-eyed to get some lunch, I thought something along the lines of, “That was a major failure, and wow … Failure isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.”

I don’t think about that day often, but when I do it’s usually when I’m on the edge of a major failure panic. I mean this book I’m currently writing could be terrible. I may have horribly misjudged it’s appeal and it could be that the voices in my head that degrade both me and my writing every time I sit down to work on it are right. But so what?

If I do the work and fail, I’ll just do more work and fail again and again until I win. So far that M.O. has worked out pretty well for me. And you know what? I might rewrite that failed monologue someday.

Just to be ornery.


Ernessa T. Carter is the author of the novel, 32 CANDLES, which will be released by HarperCollins/Amistad on June 22, 2010. Pre-order your copy on Amazon here.