It takes me back to my own college graduation just two years ago.
I crossed the finish line of that last semester like an exhausted racehorse, limping, panting, in last place but glad to make it to the end. I commuted more than sixty miles every day for class. I had a one-year-old at home and my wife was pregnant with our second child. Our only income came from a single summer and some Fridays I spent cutting grass at another university.
I was ready to be done with school and find a new job. My family was ready, too.
So I marched in the procession with my head held high. A pipe band led my fellow graduates and me across the college campus, past cheering lines of berobed professors, and into the packed arena where our friends and families waited and the university orchestra pounded out Pomp and Circumstance. My heart raced with the dizzying perfection of the moment. This was it. I had finished college, and everything looked up from here.
|Different graduation, but I look better in this one anyway.|
Except I didn't graduate.
Final grades went up a few days after the celebration. And instead of a diploma, I received a D in playwriting.
That dealt a devastating blow. After countless hours researching and drafting and revising everything from poetry to annotated bibliographies; sleepless nights forcing out coherent sentences with five tabs open on my browser and three books open on my kitchen table; early mornings on cold train platforms and long days away from my family; I came out empty handed.
I let myself down. I let my family down. What were we going to do now?
So I did what I assume all sensible people do when they fail at life. I wallowed in self-pity for a few days. Applied for what few writing jobs might take me. Hooked myself up to an ice cream IV drip.
Image credit: Ketamine Advocacy Network
But I didn't come this far to fail. My wife and I looked at summer classes. The college offered the one course I had wanted to take but never had room for in my schedule. It would satisfy my final graduation requirement, and we had just enough money left for me to enroll in it.
The first day of the summer semester after I should have graduated, I walked into my advanced creative nonfiction writing class and hoped no one would notice me. I shouldn't have been there, not with failure stamped in bold letters on my forehead. I sat in the back and busied myself with my notebook.
It didn't take long, though, before I realized not graduating in the spring was the best thing that could have happened to me. I believe I grew more as a writer in that one semester than I did in all the years before it. The writers I surrounded myself with that summer helped me open up and give more to my readers, unpack scenes and savor every moment on the page, and embrace even the dark parts of my story and myself.
At the end of the class, I received my diploma. But I gained more than that. Like a phoenix from its ashes, I came out of failure a stronger writer than I'd ever been before.
Image credit: Salvador Davila
Writers deal with failure all the time. We might get halfway through a draft before we realize the story's going nowhere. We might get piles of rejection letters before we see our work anywhere in print. Readers might leave negative reviews online.
And that's all good. Because nothing forces you to grow like failure.
Rejection is a gift. Negative reviews are gold. Think of them as opportunities to learn: to make your writing sharper, your stories bolder, your voice more yours.
But failure isn't just for writers. Sane people fail sometimes, too. And good for them!
Maybe you didn't get that promotion. Maybe your mother came over before you could clean. Maybe you miscalculated the trajectory of that shuttle launch and sent a whole crew of astronauts hurtling through the eternal void of space.
This is a great chance for you to learn something. You're gonna grow so much--just you wait and see! Someday you'll be glad this happened.
I know now if I could change the past and earn a higher grade in playwriting, I wouldn't do it. Not with everything that failure gave me.