Excerpt from Real Life: A Deadline Day & Flashback to The Big Fail

There’s a writing position I learned about last month. I am under consideration for it and I am grateful for each step of the process, including feedback and possible rejection (though I really hope that doesn’t happen).

They told me on Thursday (June 27) they wanted to see a demo/sample early next week or the next if more time was needed. If I needed more time I would have to ask Saturday or Sunday. I didn’t want to have to do that, since the job has a time-sensitive nature, so I wrote as much as possible Friday (June 28.)

Thursday I also saw a deadline for an art contest I’ve been meaning to enter for years, but have not. The deadline was the upcoming Monday afternoon, which is earlier than previous years. While I was out running errands I realized something that would be cool for my entry. I bought a piece of foam core for the final product.

Saturday I helped some family pack, move out, and clean a house for an incoming buyer/renter. Though I felt tired and achy afterward, I knew I did something important for people who matter most. It was a one-time opportunity, and it was the right thing to do. [I also decorated a wreath for their new front door and stashed it in their yet-to-be-car with packed items as a housewarming gift, but that’s neither here nor there.] We had dinner, they stayed at our house, then they got up really early and headed for the new house and meeting their movers. In years past, my family had cleaned two apartments when I moved into them; I hadn’t asked them to do that, they had just done it. I also moved back home after my big fail and lived there for four awkward years. Last summer we stayed with them when our attempt to buy a house didn’t work out the first go round and it took awhile to find a new place. It’s family, you want to be able to do things for each other and are happy to do them.

Sunday I got up after half a night’s sleep. [Thanks heartburn.] But I tried to enjoy a little weekend time, and ran errands. That evening I took the images simmering in the back of my head all day and put it on sketch paper. Then I went to bed early to compensate for all the rest I didn’t get the night before.

Monday (July 1) I was reminded we needed printer paper to print an entry form for that contest. I picked some up. Then I walked back and forth in an arts & crafts section, trying to figure out what materials would be the simplest, quickest way to execute the contest idea I had and still be able to deliver it by late afternoon. I couldn’t find some things that would have worked. That materials decision-making probably took longer than it probably should have. Ideally the art store closer to my house would have more art materials than it does, but it’s mostly fabric.

When I got home, I refocused on finalizing and sending off the writing demo. I made lots changes, cleaned up the look, and confirmed each part was consistent and typo-free. I didn’t want to ask for more time since it was the deadline zone. In my mind, that would make a bad impression: if the applicant can’t turn around the test in the desired time allotted, then he/she isn’t the person for the job.

By 2pm, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to get back to making the final contest design and submit it by 5. Oh well. At my age I can’t bring myself to hand in half-finished stuff. The contest was a “nice to participate” thing, if I had something finished and waiting in the wings it would be a different story. It would be a possible “big exposure thing” if I won. But that’s just it, the win is not at all guaranteed. I am assuming that the due date for this contest has gotten earlier and earlier over the years because they get that many entries to review. There is next year’s contest to turn in something I took the time to do well in advance. Now that I know when the deadline is, I could even paint the bulk of it next winter and finalize it next spring. This isn’t an eating contest, I don’t have to do it in a short timeframe. It’s a submission, it’s not a test.

_________

Now it’s Tuesday, things are less hectic and I am in the wait & see portion for the writing demo submission. I can mellow out, reflect and get back to my own projects.

It’s funny. There are times I find myself wishing things were busier, and within a few weeks I have a week or weekend of time-crunch territorial warfare. Varying activities all coinciding on the same date zone. They all want a piece of the same exact week or weekend, rather than spread out so I could give them each individual attention and looking like a demigoddess for being able to pull it all off. I do the best I can and pick the priorities, because years ago I learned that’s all I can do in these situations and feel content about everything and everyone involved, especially me, afterward.

Yes, I could just give up and walk away from all of it. But I would be left feeling I was irresponsible, undependable, and a loser. A loser who, over time, would look like she has a bad habit of biting off more than she can chew. Someone who talks a good game only to throw in the towel at a pivotal moment. That is not the person I want to be. Yes, I’ve had loss and admitted failure, but I’m trying to evolve here. At this point, to me it is really important to know myself well enough that I know I can’t do it all, and how to pick what’s worth a time investment right now and what isn’t. I am human, but I think I have a better gauge for when to say no, nevermind to opportunities in my 30s that I didn’t listen to in my 20s. I don’t think myself or anyone builds a good reputation, brand, or good relationships by taking on too much but never finishing anything. All that results is wasted time.

In this time-crunch weekend, I remembered my big fail at art school over 10 years ago.

I was fortunate that originality, creativity and idea generation were not a problem, but there was a catch. The deciding and focusing on the final product to be executed were a problem, and more ideas or improvements kept coming. Finding materials that can be executed in the time and budget allotted were also a challenge. [For a career field of allegedly starving people, art materials sure are expensive.]

Part of the rules of the school’s first two terms were all work was done by the student, no external help allowed. No farming out work, delegating it, no professional hired help with one’s projects (with very few exceptions like glass-blowing). It was design boot camp. For one project, I would hunt down dry gourds. I would find them hours away at a farm, take them back to my apartment, and carve a gourd tea set with a woodburner, a tool I’d never used in my life.

Anyway, the instructor might encourage an idea for weeks, and let you accrue work on it. Then they change his/her mind halfway or three-quarters (3/4) way through the term, just like a real-life client could. Did the student invest money and realize they love that idea and thought he/she was home free? Too bad, it doesn’t matter anymore, the student is back to square one. Or the project’s scope increases: the instructor/client adds a few more layers of work to the final presentation in the last few weeks of the term.

Now, multiply those “last few requests” times five, and make it all happen in a week or two. When it was clear I wasn’t going to finish everything, I was paralyzed with indecision about picking one or two of the five I could finish rather than forfeiting all of them. If I try to backtrack to my frame of mind then, my ideas were my babies; I couldn’t play favorites for fear of picking the wrong ones and, liking them all a little too much. Like a pet hoarder picking which of her furry charges he/she would have to let go of, I felt it was impossible to pick which ones to ‘just give up’ on. It would mean admitting failure to the idea, like I didn’t love it, or believe in it enough now when it counted. Where did the energy go? It had sparked my imagination at first and seemed to appeal to my instructor/client for its novelty. They all deserved finishing, but it wasn’t going to happen. So I forfeited all of them in what was the biggest fail of my life. I ended up seeking counseling, and I narrowly made it home to be in a very dear friend’s wedding.

That school was hard. Rumor has it that former medical school students who attended it claimed it was harder than medical school. Each student is getting no sleep, eating cheap convenient food, possibly totaling one’s car (see lack of sleep), straining relationships, spending more cash than one cares to think about, accruing credit card debt, approaching financial ruin. All of this to put together a ‘book’ that would win the postgraduate rockstar creative job opportunities. But consideration for a very well-paid dream job where an awesome book would do the most of the selling was why I went in the first place. I thought it would change my career forever, in a saving grace sort of way.

It did change everything, just not in a way that glossy brochures say it will to potential students. Many average 18-25-something students are naïve, full of energy and potential. They are not thinking of what could possibly go wrong. Or, that damn near all of it could.

Here are just some things I learned from my crash and burn, and they do overlap:

Finishing doesn’t sound glamorous, but it’s the best. These days, submitting my stories is almost as euphoric as seeing them printed and getting paid for them. All that I can finish on time is worth much more than all the flash I can’t afford/don’t have access to/can’t make happen on time.

Anything with my name on it better be something I can be fiercely proud to produce, or be a part of, or I really have no need to bother. It’s hard not to get distracted with all that’s going on at any one time, and that I could be a part of. I admit it’s a birdlike attraction to shiny foil that never completely goes away. Focus maybe the most underrated talent/skill of our time.

Awesome ideas don’t mean anything if you can only talk about them in a wishful thinking, ‘coulda been a contender’ manner. They need completion, and they need to take flight. They will never be perfect. I do the best I can, see what happens and try to learn from it.

“Houdini-ing” myself is overrated. When I say “Houdini-ing”, I mean putting myself in a situation of impossible escape so it looks that much cooler if I manage to pull it off, or dream of all dreams, wing it with élan.

“Houdini-ing”, usually called procrastination, comes with an addicting rush of excitement. Its stock and trade with term paper writers and some of the most famous writer personalities. Like any addiction, the act has to get more complicated to deliver an equivalent or more rush each time it’s reattempted. I don’t know if people really get better at it, it just becomes a go-to habit. A habit which can be interpreted as good or bad. I do believe it’s bad for everyone’s long term health. I also think it’s inevitable that the luck runs out: one day, the person doesn’t pull it off, or the audience isn’t amazed, or one’s health says ‘damnit, enough already’, or a substance abuse problem gets out of hand, or there’s another sort of sea change afoot. I want to do work well because I put in practice, training, classes, and organically built the confidence that makes it look much easier than it is. I don’t want my best talent to be pulling off last minute hoaxes or a stunts.

Overthinking and obsessing for days doesn’t create the best work, and last minute scrambles do not, either.

I get ideas out on paper or onscreen daily. Not all of them are winners, they just needed to get out on paper so as not to cloud all the ones yet to come. If I think one is going somewhere and I don’t already have a full plate, I can pursue it. If not, I will leave it in the sketchbook, or save the draft. If I just don’t see it working out, I don’t pursue it and more importantly, I don’t feel perpetually guilty. They are still my babies, but I trust myself more to pick the best ones at the time, and save the others for another time. If I mentioned it to someone else and it really touched something in them, and they ran with it with great response, I wouldn’t get bitter. Because there’s no guarantee it would have worked out in my hands the same way. I would hope that person would mention how it happened out of politeness and fairness, but I don’t expect that.

Which leads me to a final one, expectations. I think they guarantee disappointment of some kind, so I try not to have many, or put all my hopes into them. I think living in the US there’s this idea that brand names are everything–clothes, schools, cars, neighborhoods, addresses. But it’s just stuff to collect and doesn’t change who each of us is. And the best stuff of life–really unique, individual stuff–comes out of each person, it isn’t absorbed from the outside.

Sorry this is such a long post. ‘Have you had a big fail in life? Have you written it out or thought about what it taught you?

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