Happy Little Failures (On Women Who Refuse to be Humbled)

Alice Walker has this essay: “Refusing to Be Humbled By Second Place in a Contest You Did Not Design.” In it, she pays tribute to how Zora Neale Hurston dramatically breezes into a literary awards banquet and announces the title of her work, which failed to win first place. Some of her friends “wouldn’t have liked her,” Walker decides of this woman who was bold, daring–and completely, radiantly, herself.

I’ve been told twice this year to “be humble” (and I’m not talking about Kendrick’s song), and both times the person telling me was a man, a white man.

But I don’t know if any woman–and a woman of color in particular–has the luxury of not taking her work seriously.

“Don’t do that thing where you put your work down,” one of my mentors, a black woman, tells me before we head to a writing retreat with other black women. “That won’t fly with this crowd.”

She’s right.  A brutal self-confidence pervades the carriage of many women of color because we don’t often receive external validation–whether it’s book sales or prestigious positions. I don’t always feel confident, so when I was writing this essay, I asked women I admire how they gained theirs. Alia Curtis, a writer who initially worried she wouldn’t find an audience for her work, now believes in her writing instructor Edie Mediav’s advice that “[t]here is an audience for everyone.” Alia has taught me you have to believe a place for you exists.

Now I understand the importance of gratitude. The reality is that many talented people work very hard and produce excellent work and are never read.  I believe any time someone takes the time to read your words, whether they like them or not, you have received a gift.

I also recognize the flaws in my own work and have a better understanding of something I didn’t when I was younger:  reading widely and being a reader of other writers is essential to not only our development as writers but also our growth as human beings. We have to hear each other’s voices, in order to stay emotionally healthy.

But gratitude isn’t the same thing as whatever it is that people want women to be so they’ll be more liked. Gratitude, honesty, and respect for other writers is different from not submitting your work,or worse, not writing at all. I didn’t write for a couple of years because I felt I didn’t have a story important enough to tell. I hadn’t been to war, or faced poverty, or experienced anything eventful enough to write about. I didn’t have a big, important life. The people I knew, loved and admired were ordinary people who’d had working and middle-class jobs. Even now, I believe that people who are less economically advantaged are the people whose stories most deserved to be told. I grew up middle-class, so I know there are times when I need to shut up.  The only problem is that women, no matter their class, are the individuals who are usually being shushed.

Writers are my sheroes and heroes, and I’d rather talk to a writer whose work I admire than the latest movie or sports star. So I’ve interviewed a lot of writers over the years because I’m interested in their work.  Many of these writers are women, and it’s sometimes challenging to find outlets willing to seriously discuss their work. (This also goes for men of color, and maybe, for any writer creating experimental work.) Recently, I co-wrote a piece on spec–I culled questions from five women of color to a talented young black woman poet. I thought the poet’s responses were thoughtful and the format was unique–it’s not often we hear from women writers in conversation with other women artists.  The publication didn’t like the interview and wanted it to be longer, so I asked for additional time, so I could gather additional questions from the group. While I was in the process of gathering questions, the publication ended up rejecting the piece. Of course I understand the publication’s position. It’s their prerogative to publish what they want. But I haven’t been able to place the interview–a couple of publications read and accepted the piece and then changed their minds–and wonder if I ever will. I’m willing to revise, but I also accept this may end up being a failure.  It was one of the risks of trying an unconventional, more inclusive way of exploring an author’s work.

Failure and rejection can be hard on anyone. Still, what hurts is that women are always being told not to try, not to make the attempt. We’re told to lower our voices, literally and metaphorically, and these messages are more or less internalized. “Whenever I want to send something out, there’s a voice that stops me,” a friend, a gifted woman writer of color, tells me when I ask her about writing anxieties over drinks. I interview another woman writer, Norma Smith, who is white. Norma admits to being a perfectionist but sees perfectionism as part of being an artist, of wanting to achieve our personal best.  “In artists, creativity and perfectionism live in the same house,” Norma explains. “They need to learn how to get along and how best to complement each other, know when to leave each other alone and when to keep each other company. Someone’s got to wash the dishes, right?”

What I’ve always loved about writing is that it can revised. We can write a story that is not so great and it can become better, more true. I wasn’t good at playing the dozens in middle school and couldn’t freestyle raps in high school because I don’t always think or act quickly. I’m indecisive and sometimes it takes me a while to figure out how I actually feel about a subject, a person. But give me time and I could write a sexy rap with a reference that would make Cardi B cheer.

I’ve failed. And I’ve looked stupid. I think I’m supposed to be ashamed of not being perfect, of sometimes sounding awkward, of all the million and one ways I’ve failed. I’ve self-published a boring novel about my vagina, which shows you just how boring both my prose and my vagina can be. I had an idea for a business venture that would fund my writing–a sleep spa specializing in personalized naps–but couldn’t get it off the ground. But I have a big birthday coming up, and as I grow older, I’m slowly becoming less embarrassed by my mistakes and more ashamed of not being me. We have to learn how to be un-humbled and unafraid. Norma tells me that boldness is how writers help to eradicate oppression: “Don’t patronize (or matronize) publications or organizations or institutions that perpetuate oppression, and let them know that you’re not with them. In other words, wear your politics on your sleeve and on your pages.”

Alia tells me about the importance of self-forgiveness and not giving up:

“It is possible to learn and grow from any experience,” Alia reminds me. “It is possible to learn and grow from any experience but growth takes maturity and a willingness to admit to being at fault. I believe that the universe does forgive mistakes of any size.”

I’m taking this advice.


ROCHELLE SPENCER is co-editor of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2014). Her novella, The Rat People, will be published later this year by The Fantasist, and her nonfiction book on AfroSurreal literature is currently under contract.