On the road of failure and the post-MFA experience…

Today, I woke up and knew, in my body, that I was a failure. Today, I woke up and looked at the mirror, staring down the disheveled brown-eyed girl who looked back, eyes widened, and said aloud: “Two years and you have nothing to show for yourself. Two years, Melissa.”

If you knew me at all, you’d know that I am the harshest, most biting, and cruelest person to myself. I know how to tear me apart when I am down. It took all of my mental strength to pick myself out of bed and face the multitude of emails, finish the odd ends and edits of different freelance jobs, and face the finality of my post-MFA experience: I did not receive any fellowships I had applied to. I applied to most of the national ones, which are slim and few and the acceptance rates are less fortunate than the lottery (the Stegner is a 0.002 acceptance rate). I was close to one—a finalist to the Steinbeck Fellowship—but being in the top six (0.04 acceptance rate) is still no cigar. I did snag an interview for an adjunct Fiction position at a private, liberal arts college in Manhattan, and though they loved my application, writing sample, and highly enjoyed our interview, they ultimately went with another candidate who had more classroom college experience. Again: close, but no cigar.

Of course I was depressed. The writing life is hard. The demons that haunt me make it harder. I was agitated most of the day. I had put my entire heart and soul into these past two years, writing and writing till the light went out and till it came back in. And though I knew that I was lying when I told myself this morning that I had nothing to show for these past two years, I couldn’t help but let that small, insignificant voice eat away at me as I read that rejection letter from the private university in New York. I do have many things to show for during my time at Mills. Many great, lucky things, like winning Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open. Or a scholarship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Or the Kundiman Fiction Intensive with Porochista Khakpour and Cathy Chung. Or even the upcoming VONA/Voices Conference, and how lucky and grateful I am to be in a workshop with Junot Díaz, or even to find another Pinay writer in the workshop who blew me away with her novel excerpt, “Origin Myth.” Of course I listed these achievements, if you can call them that, to myself as I read that rejection email. I did not cry when I finished reading it. I knew yesterday, by not hearing a word from the university, that I did not get it, since they said they’d take a week. I cried yesterday after calling my husband and confessing to him that I felt like a failure. Like most people, he has a hard time understanding why I am so hard on myself. Why, any small thing that goes off course in my predetermined mind is somehow fashioned into me being a failure. “You work so hard,” he said to me. “You’re the hardest working person I know.”

I can list all my achievements, all the successes I had these past years, but this essay is not about that. It’s about the failures. It’s about how this writing life is the beaten path rarely taken. It’s about how this beaten path is a road to failure. Writing is failing. Writing is trying. Writing is becoming. Writing is taking what is left, what is broken, and with your hands, affixing the failures to what you know to be true, what you know to be good, what you know to be of the highest self, and with this in your heart and mind and soul, you make art. Make art out of failure.

Tonight, as I re-look at the disheveled, brown-eyed girl in the mirror, I know what I say is true: Make art out of failure. And even as I say it now, I feel as if it is dishonest. Because I cannot help this: I remember my loans from undergrad. I remember the rent and bills that must be paid. I remember the cross-country move that must be done. I remember the cars and their constant need of grooming and fixing and aligning. I remember my father and how difficult it is to disassociate his humanness from his greed, from the troubled childhoods we both had, from his love for me and his brokenness. I remember my mother and the psychosis I must have inherited from her. I remember my lola and I miss her for her, for what she has taught me, for what she has given and taken from me. I remember all the little things that must be done, must be taken care of, must be paid, must be eaten, must be checked off, and I re-look at myself in the mirror, still disheveled, and at moments like these, I cannot function with the phrase, “Make art out of failure.” I laugh instead. I can’t eat my art. I can’t pay the bills. I can’t keep paying app fees or residency fees or fellowship fees or first-book contest fees or what-have-you and be an artist living in the States: writing, especially here, is an elitist practice. I saw that grave classist disparity at Sewanee, and if I ever do get accepted into Breadloaf, I’m sure I’ll see it there too. I remember feeling it every time another writer at this writing residency came up to me and said, “You know, I had a Filipino nanny.” I saw it sitting across from me at a cute coffeeshop in Oakland, and how this nice writer used the benevolent, financial sustenance phrase, “My parents,” and I was reminded that my own don’t understand and don’t have the capacity to understand what I’m doing with this “art,” with this notion of “failure.”

But every time I get to this point, this bitter and narcissist low, I re-read Alice Walker’s essay, “Saving the Life that is Your Own.” I remember her words: “It is, in the end, the saving of lives that we writers are about.” I am lucky that today, a sweet and brilliant writer named Tweetie went out to dinner with me, and over cheap sushi and green tea, we bared our souls and hearts and minds to each other. She told me of her hard life. Of being orphaned at nine when her mother passed. Of her father who wasn’t her “father” who molested her. Of her bigoted aunt who took her away from her Mexican stepmother, who was her real mother, and the difficult and resilient years she undertook to finish her undergrad degree. I sat there, across from this beautiful poet who I barely knew during our brief, two years at Mills, and relearned Walker’s words: saving the life that is your own. I re-remembered why I affixed myself to writing. My body re-remembered the nights my father left me at the library till it closed and let me be watched by books. I re-remembered the countless of recesses and lunch breaks where I ran back to the school’s library, read Greek mythology, and rarely made friends because books were what saved me. I re-remembered the first time I read The God of Small Things by Roy, Middlesex by Eugenides, Frankenstein by Shelley, Pride & Prejudice by Austen, Paradise Lost by Milton, and the many more books that touched a part me I can’t really name. I remember when I first read Dogeaters by Hagedorn this year, during this last semester, and how reading two-to-three books a week fucked my mind—in a great, great way—how it utterly shifted the way I read and wrote, and how reading Dogeaters now, and only now, made me ready to let this great book bring on the nightmares, the fracture-ness, the truth and beauty and danger of being Filipino within this dying world. I re-remembered why I came to Mills. Why this land did heal me. Why writing has healed me. Why my body has this trauma. Why this trauma does not own me. Why this trauma is not why I write. Why this trauma, and this failure, is not why I write.

I write to be my truest self. My highest self. My kindest, most damaged, most willing, most vulnerable, most happy, most joyful, most powerful self. And after two years, I am damn proud of this. This is what I have to show. And whatever will come next is happenstance. I will continue to work hard. To write. To be. To will. To heal. To live. To try. And to fail.

This is my path. And I will walk it with grace, spitfire, and a nod to failure. Because failure will not own me. Failure is but a part of my process, my will to make, to live, to breathe in and out: art. And what a life that is. It’s a life that saves itself. A life that lives to save others like itself. A life where things matter, where literature matters, where the body matters.

For this, I walk down this path of failure; for this, I know I walk toward the light.



4 thoughts on “On the road of failure and the post-MFA experience…

  1. I had a writing teacher once who would always quote Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” He said that was a sign that the artist was trying something new…growing… inventing.

  2. Hi, thank you for sharing this very insightful and inspiring post…after what seems to feel like forever I am embarking on a journey to finally go back and pursue my MFA in my 40s. You have all these accolades to be proud of, I have none…but your post blew my mind, as it affirmed why I am deciding to do this. I know it’s what I want to do!

  3. Melissa, I love this. I hope VONA (and yesterday’s reading!) are reminding you why we write and why we keep trying. I’m so glad I met you through Nayomi! ❤

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