Failure as Muse

Marie-Helene Bertino


“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

I was ten when I submitted my first poem to The New Yorker.

Dear The New Yorker, I typed, enclosed please find the only copy of my poem, “Bunnies On My Grandmother’s Lawn.” Thank you in advance for publishing my work. Signed, Marie Bertino, grade six.

A few weeks later a slim envelope arrived from New York. Inside rested an ecru-colored paper, smaller than a regular sheet, a size I’ve never seen anywhere else. It was embossed with the magazine’s ombudsmen, that jaunty gentleman eternally spying through his magnifying glass. The letter was to the point (the point was no thanks) and signed: The Editors. It probably took an intern five seconds to mail, but for me, it was my precious indoctrination as a girl of letters. My very first rejection.

I pulled out my trusty Olympia and typed another letter, enclosed another poem, and sent it right back. A writer, above all else, has to cultivate a stubborn, impenetrable tenacity that listens to no earthly reason.

At age thirteen I read Edna Saint Vincent Millay’s poem “Recuerdo” and went bananas. I decided I would go to New York University, wear turbans and ride the ferry back and forth with poets, like she had. I applied to NYU’s Tisch School of The Arts as soon as was humanly possible. To satisfy guidance counselors WHO DID NOT GET IT, I also applied to six other schools, though there was no doubt in my mind that come September, I would be in Greenwich Village, which I still pronounced like it was a type of sandwich. The day the full-sized acceptance letter arrived I felt important mechanisms in my life clicking together in a divine way.

Only then did I let my mother in on the turbans and poets plan. My mother: single, raising three children on the salary of a health care worker. Our deal was: she would put food on the table, I would do my homework and get good grades. She hadn’t, like other parents, ferried me up and down the eastern seaboard visiting colleges and buying sweatshirts at each school store. She had a vague sense I was applying to colleges but when she sat down and calculated how much NYU would cost, I was informed there was no way on creamy earth I was going. I was naïve enough to be stunned. What about Carnegie Melon, I said? Fordham, for chrissake? No and no.

The only school we could afford was Villanova, a school with no creative writing program. Regarding that homework I was supposed to be doing, I had done exactly none on those other schools. How could I, when I was too busy sketching pictures of me gently waving off J.D. Salinger’s offer of another macaroon?

After studying Irish poetry for four years, I was determined that grad school would be my redemption.  I applied to the five best schools in the world for poetry, including my beloved NYU. In May, the envelopes began to arrive. Their return addresses were different, but their messages were the same. In September we will begin the school year—please don’t join us! Not to brag, but I’ve been rejected by the five best Poetry MFA programs in the world.

I was living in San Francisco at the time. I drove to the ocean and allowed myself to feel as sorry as I wanted. Poetry had led me this far, but now it was showing me the door. On the cliffs of The Pacific Ocean I made a decision: if I couldn’t be a poet, I would at least move to where poets hung out.

The next year, I moved to New York and found a writer’s group on Craigslist. They were fine with me writing poetry while they wrote fiction. Only, I couldn’t write poetry anymore. There was a sound I had ceased to hear. I had wanted to be a writer since age four so I had to write something. Essays? Brochures? Fiction was out because I thought to be good at fiction you had to be good at math. The stories of Hemingway and O’Conner were beautiful, but to me they read like equations.

When I told my writer’s group my fiction writer-as-mathematician theory, they politely managed not to laugh. They introduced me to George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Amanda Davis and Haruki Murakami. Upon reading these writers, a bell rang. Hold the phone, I thought. You’re allowed to be funny? And weird? And original? I realized I had a place at the table. When I took my tentative steps into writing fiction I was hooked. I began to write stories and eventually, send them out. That’s when the real rejection began.

Rejection is failure you court! “North Of,” my story about Bob Dylan coming to Thanksgiving dinner, was one of the first I wrote. I sent it to The New Yorker first (Dear The New Yorker, thank you in advance for publishing my story…) and they rejected it along with thirty-four other magazines. I hung each rejection on my wall and noted it on the color-coded Excel spreadsheet I still to this day maintain with the meticulousness of a scientist. I became so accustomed to being rejected that when The Mississippi Review emailed me an acceptance, I read the first few lines, utterly baffled. What the hell kind of rejection was this?

A few years of waitressing and receptioning later, I scored a job ghostwriting two books for an enormously popular YA series geared toward teenaged girls. So popular that my friends seemed to finally understand why I had opted to live in an apartment the size of a fart. I had made it in a big, big way I was contractually obligated not to discuss.

Only then did I read a book from the series. To my horror, I discovered that the plot centered around girls being cruel to one another while shopping. The language consisted of brand name dropping and Zac Efron puns. True, I was free from the constraints of causality and morals. I was free, nay, encouraged to use statements like, “Something inside of her snapped.” The person whose name is on the books wrote chapter outlines that were emailed to me every week, and my job was to write the chapter and not stray off the beaten path. For the first few weeks, I was able to do so. I woke up early before my day job and wrote late into the night. I boned up on designer brand names and found out that Zac Efron was not, in fact, Nora Ephron’s son. I received improbably chipper good job! emails from what seemed like a mono-voiced team of editors. I justified participating in a series that while not directly encouraging girls to hate themselves certainly didn’t try to make them like themselves because the money would enable me to write girl-empowering fiction later, right?

After a few weeks, I figured that without stepping on any Gucci-pedicured toes I could slip in a few substantive facts. I inserted a running joke about Joan of Arc and a few references to The Great Gatsby.

“I’ll burn your reputation faster than Joan of Arc burned when she was tried as a witch in 1431 for, let’s face it, being a powerful woman,” Taran said, doffing her Louboutins and stretching her Pilates-toned legs.

My weekly emails began to include worried-sounding P.S.’s reminding me to stay on the outline, cutie!

Then, on January 27th, 2010, J.D. Salinger died, and something inside of me snapped. It was near my final deadline when I was expected to deliver the last six chapters all at once. I pulled several all-nighters and the final pages were, in my mind, perfect. In them, I introduced a new character who wasn’t on the outlines. J.D. Hobbes: softball star, who was not only friends with the mean girls but also the staff of the school literary magazine I invented, who helped organize an equal rights rally I invented to raise money for a student run theater company I also invented. As it turns out, I’m allergic to the beaten path. I had barely pressed “send” before I was wrangled into a conference call with my no longer chipper editors and fired faster than you can say Zac Efron’s pecs.

I tell that story to my students at NYU, where I currently teach fiction. I tell them this, too: In order for me to develop and hone my particular voice, I had to be way out in front of everyone, way to the side, or way far behind. Failure and rejection afforded me that space.

Sometimes what stood between success and me was the work; lack of talent, not having the right voice, sometimes it was not about the work; not being the right gender or the correct pedigree; either my biography wasn’t salacious enough, my upbringing not tony enough or, maddeningly, not poor enough. The latter kind I can’t control so there is little point worrying about it. However, many times what stood between success and me was me. My principals, my obstinacy. That throws shade onto what is considered “success” and what is “failure,” and I prefer to live in that shade.

Only when you neutralize the fear of failure can you have some real fun. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter,” Samuel Beckett said, “Try Again. Fail Again. Fail better.” I’ll do you one better than that, Sam. Fail Spectacularly. Fail Bester. Is “bester” a word? No matter.

If I had never failed at being a poet, I might never have tried writing fiction. If I had never tried fiction, I never would have assembled an impressive amount of ecru-colored rejections that still make me feel like a real writer, or been given the opportunity to fail spectacularly at ghostwriting novels with the nutritional value of a pack of matches. Most importantly, I never would have written a novel, the publication of which affords me the opportunity to tell this story at festivals, at readings, and right here, on the website of this magazine.

Marie-Helene Bertino‘s debut novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, a Barnes & Noble Fall ’14 Discover Great New Writers pick, is now available. Her debut collection of short stories Safe as Houses received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Pushcart Prize, and was long-listed for The Story Prize and The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. She was an Emerging Writers Fellow at NYC Center for Fiction and lives in Brooklyn, where she was the Associate Editor for One Story. She teaches at NYU, Institute for American Indian Arts, The Center for Fiction, and The Sackett Street Workshops.