He had the kind of face you’d forget if you tried to remember. Really. I can barely picture it now. His skin was a pale, translucent white (I know that) and his hair was a dullish gray but his features? I don’t know. They were shadowy, vague, general in the sense that he had a nose and eyebrows and a mouth but I couldn’t tell you their shape or what his lips look like when they formed the word “failed.”
The man (let’s call him John) sat down next to me after a meeting I attended last week at a business center about thirty minutes away from my house. I drove there in the rain expecting inspiration, finding John.
John approached just minutes after the meeting ended, his feature-less face sparked with something as his color-less eyes met mine.
“Hi, great to meet you!” He shouted at me and his voice was soaked with too much enthusiasm to make the words true. “Can I have your business card?”
John’s hands were outstretched, and I placed the small piece of cardboard in his palm. It was a rite of passage for him to sit next to me and speak.
“You’re a writer, and you know what? I’m a writer. I once passed on Amy Tan’s agent because she was a nobody when she read my manuscript. Fantasy fiction. Well, science fiction.”
“Oh wow,” I said, feigning interest, hoping he’d leave.
“My friend is also a writer,” John continued. “Short stories. Can I tell you one he wrote? Let me tell you a story. Do you mind? Do you have time?”
“OK. So, he wrote this story about a writer …”
I do remember staring at him — a blank visage — and thinking I was in some Matrix movie sequel where everyone is a writer writing about a writer writing about a writer who writes to writers …
“… and the writer meets the Devil. Now, this writer hasn’t gotten anything published but he writes all the time, just can’t seem to make it work. Anyway, he meets the Devil who tells him ‘If you make a deal with me, I’ll give you a way to have your writing be read by millions of people but you will forever be known as a failed writer. Will you take the deal?’ The writer, of course, thinks this is funny. If his writing is seen by millions of people that means he’d be a success, so he thinks the Devil isn’t too bright and he takes the deal. Well, guess what?”
I look at him without seeing who he is and say nothing.
“Well here it is. Here’s what! He’s a copywriter! Get it? He’s a failed writer because he’s a copywriter, just like you! Writing ads or something. Seen by millions but failed. Get it?”
The conversation trickled on after that like dirty rain water from a pasta sieve left out in the cold during a February rainstorm. I didn’t listen to what he said, if he even spoke again. It’s possible I did know what he looked like and after John the Writer told me this story about another writer who wrote about a writer, my mind erased him.
The exchange wasn’t upsetting as it should’ve been (the guy had no face after all) but it was interesting to note John’s definition of “failure” and pondering its interest left me with a flurry of questions with no clear answers: Who is John to say I’ve failed? Has he succeeded? Can we say that anyone who writes even one word is a successful writer? What is the measure of success for a writer, anyway? Is it a No. 1 bestselling title? Or, is it a comment left by a stranger on your Instagram post saying that your words made her feel when she couldn’t feel before?
I ask because I don’t know but I do know that failure and success are two sides of the same sword. (Or to continue the pasta metaphor, two ends of the same noodle.) What’s a win for someone may not be a win for you, and because no two minds are alike, the ever-shifting definition of the terms means we’ll never agree. And that’s OK.
It hasn’t yet been a topic on the blog but I left my 9-5 job five months ago to pursue writing (and little word studio) full-time. I wake up and write. I drink coffee and write. Get lunch, write. Sit by the dim light of my computer and midnight, writer. Whether it’s for a client or for myself, I get up every day and do it.
Honestly, success (or failure) has never motivated me or colored my words with shades of inspiration, ever. When I type, the only thing in my mind is that that whatever I put out into the world should be the best I can do. I want to know that all my creative energy went into this one thing and if people hate it, OK. If they love it, OK. But the story here is that it’s mine and not yours, John.