My childhood home was crushed last year.
Smashed into a disc of debris by one little windstorm and an old cottonwood. If you were to stand in the wreckage, you’d never have known that it was once a humble house from a humble neighborhood. With windows and worth and walls covered in pictures of smiling faces. It’s a strange thing to see a symbol of permanence reduced to violent rubble – one that the dear people of Oklahoma understand all too well right now. (Our thoughts are still with you!) After discovering that no one had been hurt, those of us who’d long since flown the coop were surprised to realize that the destruction of the house wasn’t as upsetting as it might have been. All symbols aside, it was only a bit of wood and paint. It could be rebuilt.
The cottonwood was another matter.
Losing that blasted tree brought us to tears.
To be fair, this was no ordinary cottonwood. It was ooold, having stood benevolently at the home’s side for more than a hundred years. It had provided shade and shelter not only for us, but for countless birds, squirrels, and beneficial insects that were now left with nowhere to sleep. It had been a permanent hiding place for raccoons and a temporary roost for eagles. My baby sister and I had wasted entire summers in its branches, playing at spies and soldiers and daring one another to climb higher, ever higher. Courtesy of an odd clustering of what looked to be four trees melded into one, its trunk measured over thirty feet in circumference and its canopy was a sky unto itself. The dear woman from the local Arbor Society who came to record its passing said it was the most astonishing of its kind, the most remarkable cottonwood she’d ever documented. It had been the reason my father, now gone, had purchased the property thirty years before. In the end, it was the reason the house fell. I suppose there is something sadly poetic about that.
By now, you’re probably wondering at the title of this post. It’s a long way to go for a writing metaphor, but I’m ambling my way into a point, I promise.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, cottonwoods are notorious for this very type of thing – falling on houses, cars, even people – and as such, aren’t recommended for residential properties. With that in mind, it would be fair to accuse that big, beautiful thing in all its glory of being a mistake. You could say it wasn’t right for the house and the house paid for it. You could say we should have removed the thing the moment we arrived. Maybe you’d be right. But there was a reason that tree had grown to a mounting spectacle, as it did; a goliath that stood apart from its species and endeared itself to everyone who was lucky enough to sit beneath it. Due to a unique growth pattern, the tree’s root system was exceptionally deep and strong. Many cottonwoods tumble after being uprooted by their own girth, but not this one. Had it not fallen victim to disease, those roots might have sustained it for a hundred years more. Even now that it has been shorn to a stump, that system remains, stretching beneath the soil, a living network that none can see, providing a foundation for the new trees that have now been planted atop it. They will tap into that system. They will be nourished by it. They will grow to be more hardy, more successful, and likely more beautiful than they could ever have been on their own.
And they will have that beautiful mistake to thank for their success.
My point, dear reader, fellow writer, is this:
We sometimes find ourselves in the aftermath of a writing mistake. Maybe you’re struggling to find acceptance for your work. Maybe something isn’t selling the way you thought it would. Maybe you’re looking at the devastation of a grand failure and wondering whether it’s at all worth it to rebuild, to start over – or whether you’d be better off to move away from this entire writing endeavor and find yourself a quiet corner office where nothing goes wrong, where work is always rewarded with pay, and where nothing beyond your control is ever going to fall on your dreams and crush them into filthy shards.
You could do that.
But you bloody well know that you’d regret it.
Not everything you write will be publishable, no matter how much you love it. Not everything you publish will be marketable, no matter how much you try. Novels will be shelved, ideas will be abandoned, entire works will come crashing down on a massive scale and you will stare confounded at the debris, but that doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time. Everything you will ever write has something to teach you. Cut the book to nothing, you will still have the memories of hours wherein you dared yourself to go higher, ever higher. You will learn in hindsight that there was a reason why it failed. And you will have a foundation upon which to build something new.
Writing isn’t something you do, it’s who you are. So write. If you fail, start over. And if you fail again, start over again. You will get stronger with every step, every word, every book. Every part of this loony ride of ups and downs is worth it, in the end – even the mistakes.
Especially the mistakes.
My childhood home has been rebuilt and it is a remarkable sight. Starting over has injected that humble plot of land with enough sweat equity that the once-dilapidated property could now be a contender on any market. But my favorite part? The sea of trees sprouting strong and beautiful from the place where one gorgeous calamity of a cottonwood lived not so long ago.
I can’t wait to watch them grow.
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