Former Hudson Valley events editor Robert Rubsam muses on all he’s learned during his journey to improve himself as a writer.
To write well is to manage failure. On the level of the story, the paragraph, and the sentence, nothing is ever quite right. I want to use the right words to express exactly what I mean — and yet I always come up short. No matter how satisfied I feel when submitting an essay or a story or a section of my novel, within an hour I will want to change the whole thing. In the folds of failure, I’ve learned accomplishment can sometimes be found.
To fail well is to accept that, in life, nothing will ever be quite right. This certainly took me long enough to learn. I had a plan for myself after college: move to New York City, get a media internship, begin working at one or another digital publication covering whatever was then in fashion. I applied far and wide; I never even got an interview.
So I changed tracks, moved abroad, worked dull jobs, lived simply and traveled lightly; in the process, I discovered many of those themes that haunt me still. And my writing improved immensely, far more than if I had stuck with my plan. When I returned from these travels, once again I thought I knew where my life was headed. I would publish a novel and reap the rewards. You might be detecting a theme. But, as the rejections piled up, I began to realize that none mattered particularly much on its own. Each turned me stubbornly back to the desk, forced me to fail a little better next time.
When bigger publications wouldn’t hire me, I wrote for smaller ones that paid less, but allowed me to develop my voice and indulge my perspective. I came back to the Hudson Valley and worked for many local outlets, including this one. Whenever writing failed to pay my bills, I took another job on the side. I learned that I was willing to accept failure after failure if it meant I would continue to write. And as I aged, and failed, aged some more and failed some more, I discovered that others, thousands of others, obsessed over my obsessions as well — though how could I have known, had I never written about them?
I had to be shunted off the main track to land on my own. No agent would read my first novel; no graduate school would admit me on the basis of another. But, last semester, one of my professors so enjoyed the work I’m currently working on — a piece unlike anything I have ever written before — that he nominated me for a prize. How could I have known that this was the path to take? No plan could have led me to where I am.
I have yet to land that lucrative media job, yet to publish that famous novel. My goals remain elusive. I will never find just the right words with just the right meaning. But perhaps I might. I write and write again into my failure, and something better — not perfect, not even acceptable — emerges, a view I could only have halfway described, had I known the words to use.