Consolation Theory

When I was senior in high school, I confidently told the selection committee for the John Motley Morehead scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill that I was going to be a southern novelist. I was going to join that club of writers, who at the time included Lee Smith, Anne Tyler, Reynolds Price, Doris Betts, Fred Chappell, Guy Owen, and a little later admitted Jill McCorkle, Clyde Edgerton, Josephine Humphreys, Kaye Gibbons and all those others I wanted to be like. The Morehead selection committee was apparently not impressed, and didn’t give me a scholarship. Since then, a fair number of editors, agents and others in the publishing industry also have not been impressed, and at age forty-something, I am still not a published novelist. Although I’ve now found an agent to help me out, there is no guarantee that she’ll be able to sell my novel, given the current economic climate and the oh-so-not-commercial nature of the novel I’ve written. So I’ve been wrestling with how I’m going to handle it if I never accomplish this goal that I was silly enough to set for myself at age seventeen.

As a practicing Christian, my first thought was to look for a spiritual solution. Failure is nothing new to Christians. The Bible is full of characters who failed magnificently, and repeatedly. Characters who, like Peter in Luke 5:5 have said, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.” So I embarked on a quest to learn how God wants us to respond to failure. The consensus seems to be that God wants us to redefine success and failure in Godly terms, and to measure success by our service to others, not by our list of publications in literary magazines with a circulation greater than five thousand.

And here is where I fail as a Christian. The spiritual solution just doesn’t comfort me. I’m all for service to others, but I still need a way to live contentedly in the gap between what I had hoped to achieve with my life, and what I am actually likely to accomplish. Somehow I have to come to terms with it.

Having failed to be a good follower of Christ, the next place I looked for consolation was in the theory of multiple, or parallel, universes. Yes, you heard me right.

As I understand it, based on one ninth grade physics class and a lifetime of watching too much Star Trek, the theory goes something like this: that whenever a situation occurs where there is more than one possible outcome, there is one outcome in this universe, and all the other outcomes flutter out in a fan of alternate realities in other universes. The depressing aspect is that if you have ever had a brush with death in this universe, you’re bound to be dead in some other universe. The upside is, all those times some editor or contest judge chose someone else’s manuscript instead of mine, in another universe they picked mine. In universe # 54382, the three novels I have written are on the shelves at Barnes & Noble instead of under my bed, I am happily typing away on a fourth one, and will take a break this afternoon to go teach creative writing to budding writers who, in universe # 54382, have not yet been published but are diligently working to improve their craft. I am a far better writer in universe # 54382 than I am in this one. I am also ten pounds lighter and have had Botox injections. So, if I go with the theory of parallel universes, then when I’m old and in the nursing home and my children are packing up boxes of my unpublished work to take out to the curb, I’ll find comfort in knowing that somewhere in another dimension I am sitting on a veranda discussing point-of-view with members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

If a steadfast, if slightly batty, belief in alternate realities doesn’t console me, there is one other approach that might. A couple of years ago I went to a reading by three women affiliated with, an online parenting magazine for progressive (anarchist, even) parents. The authors, all far younger and hipper and more tattooed than me, were great (though they made me think I should start my own online magazine, called “Oldmama” or “Tiredmama” or “Mama-that-grew-up-in-the Reagan-years-and-didn’”). One of the authors said something about writing that has stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but she said that it’s easier to keep on working toward your dream than it is to convince yourself that you never wanted it in the first place.
I think that’s a workable theory. I think I believe it to be true.
Copyright 2009 by Heather Newton

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