I Was Accepted to University.

WesternWashingtonUniversitySeal

 

I got an e-mail notifying me of my acceptance to the one university that I applied to yesterday.

I haven’t felt much about it other than the sudden absence of worry that I might not get in.

Other people have been enthusiastic, though, to a point that I don’t really understand. To me, it was more of a bureaucratic hurdle than anything. I’m no dummy; I know that plenty of people of average intelligence get accepted into and even graduate from university. This is not and should not be considered a marker of intelligence so much as a willingness to fill out forms and jump through hoops. So when people tell me, hey wow good job, my immediate thought is that they think that I’m stupid and that’s why they’re impressed that I was accepted.

This thought has nothing to do with these people. They’re nice folks, and I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. It’s just a reflection of my childhood imposing itself on my adult life. I’m slowly getting better at managing this stuff and separating out the insidious whispers of my youth from reality, and I think that’s key to growing up.

I am excited to have been accepted; I’m excited to get out of community college and get a big-girl degree. I’m excited to no longer be the only person in my family without one. I’m excited that after that I get to move on to a new part of my life, one I probably should already have been working on ages ago. Some of us take a little longer to cotton on than others, I think.

In any case, I thought it would be fun to share my application essay. Judging by my cumulative GPA, I have to assume it was the reason I was accepted. In the meantime I’m one day and one exam away from spring break, and excited to have the chance to get some work done.

Enjoy.

The moment I realized that contemporary corporate capitalism had failed us, I was sitting in a dingy meeting room with my coworkers, listening with dawning horror as we were told that we would all be laid off. It was 2010; we had weathered the Great Recession. The country was now said to be in a period of recovery. We thought we had survived. The layoffs were the result of an acquisition of our regional utility company by a larger one; the acquisition happened during the run-up to the recession. We had been assured that our jobs were safe.

The moment when I learned that “failure” is another word for the moment when we stop trying, I was on a rocky footpath in the hills of Bhutan. I was suffering from pneumonia and hepatitis. One of my knees had given out under me a couple of miles back, and I was leaning heavily on my trekking poles. I was hiking back to town from our trekking group, too sick to continue the climb from our basecamp at thirteen thousand feet to the summit of the trek at just over fourteen thousand. I paused on the trail to catch my breath and looked down at the Paro River below. I knew it was cold; it was flowing down from the snow-covered mountains that we were escaping. It was milky with silt and bluish green. In that moment I knew I did not have to carry on. I could lie in those icy waters until the whole thing was over. It wouldn’t even take that long.

I didn’t stop. I kept going, but even in my compromised state it was with the crystal clear understanding that continuing was a choice that I had made.

Both of these moments were instrumental in bringing me to where I am today. I have recovered from the second but not the first; after working a series of temporary jobs in a desperate bid to pay my bills, I realized that I didn’t want to depend on the whims of a large company for my living.

We’re told that taking a job with an employer is the safe option, and that entrepreneurship is the risky one. Year after year, the idea of job security seems more illusory. It’s time to ask whether the safety we supposedly receive in exchange for our independence is worthwhile, and whether entrepreneurship is a smart way to hedge against the whims of the market.

Since these events, I have published my first novel and written a few other books. I have also started a small business to sell and market those books and have come to realize that great writing is only one small part of succeeding as an independent fiction author.

My goal is to become a producer of value in the economy rather than a voiceless part of a much larger production chain. An education in business, acquired in my own community where I have long-standing relationships with a number of local entrepreneurs who can supplement that education with mentorship, seems to be the next logical step toward success.

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Failing Up.

I’m going to let you in on one of the things I really love about writing.

It’s almost impossible to fail at it.

When you write, especially with modern tools, you’re just a backspace press (of varying lengths, of course) from being back on the right track.  It can hurt sometimes to set yourself back like that, but everything can be fixed.  It’s very very rare that something that I’ve started has gotten to the point at which it just had to be scrapped entirely, and in those cases, the failure happened very early in the process, during conception.

Not all activities are like this.  Drawing and painting aren’t like this… once you lay down the wrong line in ink, it’s there for good.  Oh, sure… they sell correcting fluids and opaque white inks, and there are methods by which you can simply cut out the offending piece of paper and replace it.  These techniques only minimize the original mistake… the opaque ink isn’t entirely opaque, or you can see the cut lines in the paper, or the correction fluid is a very slightly different shade of white than the paper you’re using.  In painting, some media are more forgiving than others… watercolor scares the hell out of me.  Once that pigment is dry, you cannot pick it up, and attempts to cover it will always show a shadow of the original stroke.  With acrylic, you can generally paint over any mistakes pretty quickly, but if you’re a textural painter, the original brush strokes will never go away unless you sand them down.

Painting over a mistake is less practical with oil paints, since they can take months to dry fully, but that intractable wetness allows you the opportunity to simply scrape your mistake up with a palette knife, or to just repaint it.  Some of these mistakes, resolved through simply lightening or darkening the offending paint, or adding a different pigment, have given me some of the richest colors I’ve ever seen… paints featuring one pigment provide a bright but shallow color… a kind of monochromatic look that you don’t see in nature.  Color in nature, as with sounds and smells, is a thing of incredible variation, depending on the intensity and directionality of the light and in fact the composition of the surface itself, the roughness or smoothness of the surface, and depending on the sensitivity of the viewer’s eye.  This is why I love painting with oil paints… sometimes you just don’t know if a color is right until its on the canvas, and it may need to be adjusted.  Oil paints are so forgiving of this, and it lets you get the color, the shadow, and even the shape (yes, I have scraped entire lines and edges off of canvases) just right.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that oil painting thrives in the presence of human error.  Not error… let’s call it “human variability.”

We live in a world that demands compliance and consistency and homogeneity.  We perform jobs that expect the same performance again and again and again, regardless of whether you’re performing surgery or stuffing envelopes.  The unfortunate thing about this is that human beings are intensely variable little creatures.  It takes a lot of effort enforcing structure on us to get us to operate in this way, and that enforcement of structure, that training, starts in school.  This is why I tell my friends’ children that if they learn nothing else from finishing school, they’ll learn to work.

The effort that goes into writing, like oil painting, is much more forgiving of that human variability… in fact, as a writer, it pays to avoid doing your work the exact same way every time.  Our work benefits from innovation in ways that most work really doesn’t.  And thus, error in writing, even if it is deleted in the end (and believe me, a whole lot of it is) contributes to the finished product in ways that are incalculable.  In fact in most cases, the author probably doesn’t know what changes or decisions might be related in some way to a mistake made earlier in that piece, or even in a prior piece.  And I’m not just talking about learning from one’s mistakes, although that’s part of it, but a word that you consistently misspelled previously may influence word choice later on, or a word mistyped might alter the structure of an entire sentence.

This kind of variability, this brand of failure, can be practiced in everyday life, but it either has to be done on the back end, or has to be a part of a process that precipitates a policy change.  This is what makes working life so strange… employers will say that they value creativity, but they don’t… they want the benefit of creative employees, but reject the increase in variability that comes from divergent thinking.  Creativity inherently involves risk.  There is no way to get around that risk.  The ability to take risks and roll with the punches when the results come in is the very heart and soul of creative work.

And when you take a risk and fail in a creative setting, you have to start again from where the mistake was made.

This is costly for large companies or even government offices.  The efficiency that they treasure is a big part of meeting revenue goals.  If one person is less efficient, that’s not a huge effect, but if fifty thousand people are less efficient, that ends up being a much bigger deal.  So in our work, as people, we are not encouraged to engage in divergent thinking.

But when you’re writing, I would encourage everyone to embrace your mistakes and your failures.  They are going to make you a better writer.  It’s not a big deal to take a little longer than expected to pick up a new skill… in fact, I think that it may allow someone to gain a more complete understanding of the process.  In most cases, the risks are going to be low… nobody’s going to die, you’re not going to destabilize eastern europe, and you’re not going to cause a global recession.

In most cases, the cost is going to be just a little more time spent on whatever you’re working on, and your own pride.  This process is definitely worth the time, and we could all do with a little less pride.

And I think this carries over to other aspects of our lives as well.