Failure for Writers: a Primer.

There are days that go by in which I don’t wonder whether or not I should be doing this whole writing thing, but I don’t think they’re in the majority. On the other side of that are the days when I feel unworthy, incapable, and pathetic. Those days are something everyone experiences, and they’re difficult to deal with.

So I’m going to write about a time in my life recently when I learned about failure.

So in fall of 2014, I was lucky enough to accompany my older sister on a trip to Bhutan.  If you’ve never heard of Bhutan, and plenty of people haven’t, it’s a little buddhist nation nestled between Chinese Occupied Tibet and India. It’s an expensive place to travel, and a great opportunity… since they had only opened their borders to the outside world in 1974, they remained relatively untouched by western culture.

I was probably sick on the plane, honestly.  But it’s so difficult to tell with the dry air on a transoceanic flight.

I probably should have known I was too ill to go on trek when I barely made it up to Taktsang Monastery, but it was within our first few days in the country and I thought I was still adjusting to the altitude.

And besides, it’s such a beautiful place, and I was so excited.

To make a long story short, I couldn’t make the first leg of the trek. I was carried up to base camp by a couple of very sweet pack ponies over the course of a few days.  If I were to be honest with you, I don’t remember much from the trek.  I remember being so weak that I could barely walk across camp.  I remember being unable to haul myself on to the pony, sliding to the ground under her belly.

And while without the ponies I likely wouldn’t have made it there, let me tell you without hesitation that your first riding experience shouldn’t be on a himalayan pack pony with a wooden saddle and makeshift stirrups.

Our trek leader wanted us to press on to base camp because there was cell signal there.

My sister crawled into my tent at base camp.

“I think you have pneumonia.”

She told me that she had spoken to someone who was acquainted with the King of Bhutan, and there was no way to get a helicopter out in fewer than three days or for less than fifty grand.  She started me on antibiotics and prednisone.

We spent one day at base camp with the rest of our party, and then turned back the next day with a couple of guides and ponies to carry our gear. It was twenty miles to the closest road.

The original plan had been to take the hike in three days, but we found out the next day that they hadn’t sent enough propane with us to cook meals or, more importantly, sterilize drinking water for that length of time.  So the second day we had to keep going until we made it.

The two days we spent walking seem to be compressed into a series of moments in my memory.  Between the illness and the prednisone, everything seemed a little strange.  I remember seeing death’s heads everywhere; in the dappled pattern of sun and shade on the trail, in the pattern of moss on a rock, in the rutted surface of the dirt path.  

The path that the trek followed, and that we were following back (with a slight diversion to allow some passing yaks to use the higher trail) was along the Paro River, and I remember we were on a slight rise, and I looked down at the river, with its milky blue water, and I thought, it’s not all that far down, but if I jumped maybe I would die of hypothermia before anyone could reach me.

And there was no emotional content to this thought; it was just a way for all of this to be over with.

And I didn’t jump.

The river was alongside us almost the whole way back, like a noose hanging in the corner of the room.

So the point is this; as much as I’ve beaten myself up over my failure to complete the planned trek, I hiked twenty miles in the himalayas in two days on little more than boiled eggs and potatoes, with pneumonia and what would end up being diagnosed as hepatitis. I stepped to a line at which I was considering death rather than continuing, and I went on anyway.

You’re going to have hard days.  You’re going to write things that you don’t think are very good.  Other people will love those things, and with every piece you write, you’ll get a little better. But the only time that you really truly fail is the time when you quit.