Twenty years ago, fresh out of law school and an articling stint at a prestigious Bay Street firm, a life was laid out for me. It was a slick-looking life, too: upper six-figured, corner-officed, cottage-and-two-German-cars. But I walked away, moving into a crappy apartment in Peterborough, Ontario, instead. Why? To work as a bartender. To promise myself that I’d never be a lawyer, no matter what. To write a novel.
When people learn this about me they often say it must have required courage. I don’t know about that. It sure didn’t feel like bravery. In fact, it often felt closer to stupidity, or at least romantic foolishness. But much like the brave and/or stupid things one does in the name of love, it wasn’t really a decision at all. Yes, I had to tell my parents I was turning my back on a life of certainty for one in which the only predictable reward was daily servings of self-doubt. And yes, my law school colleagues greeted my plans with expressions of the kind one makes when a friend tells you he’s embarking on a marriage whose doom is obvious to all except the groom himself.
But decisions are deliberate, a weighing of Pro vs. Con. What I did wasn’t that. It was an act of survival.
I don’t mean survival of the physical kind (I don’t deserve – and I’m not looking for – the credit given to those who do superhuman things in the name of forestalling The End). I mean the survival of my inner life. The creative self, the translator of experience, the storyteller. I’ve never stopped to give it a name. Whatever it was, it had been with me from childhood, a way of being, helping me see. To follow a moneyed, skyscrapered vocation would be to see it perish like the many houseplants I’d picked up over the years and watched turn to crispy sticks from lack of water and sunlight.
Perhaps it’s being the child of immigrant parents, or the Presbyterian bloodline – or maybe it’s simply the Canadian way – but I’ve always found more usefulness in failure than success. It’s always personal, for one thing. And there’s so much of it to choose from!
The writing life, for instance, offers a bountiful feast of failure, as well as every flavour of rejection, the finest vintages of humiliation and sweet platters of criticism. An editor once declared my new manuscript – to my eyes, the best I’d ever written – dead on arrival. A reviewer advised me to drop the literary thing and take up long-haul trucking. At one of my bookstore signings, the only customer to buy my book was someone who’d mistaken me for a retired hockey player. Each meal taken from the banquet is unique, unforgettable.
But in order to keep that inner life alive, whatever it may be, it’s important to stay hungry for ever more failure.
Here’s the thing I learned from turning my back on a fancy legal career for a shot at ink-stained perpetual job insecurity: not the self-congratulation that comes with having “made it,” but the importance of trying. Had I not finished that novel I wrote living on the last vapours of my student loans and a few bucks slinging drinks, had it not gone on to be published and started me on the bumpy camel ride across the desert that goes by the name of a literary career, I would never have regretted it. Because I tried. Crashing and burning is painful, but it draws a line through an item on your existential bucket list. It nourishes a part of yourself that would otherwise shrivel and starve.
Failure tastes like sawdust drizzled with WD-40 (I know because I’ve downed a few plates). But I’ve developed a stomach for the dish, and I certainly don’t fear the next serving when it comes. What I fear are the costs of not having a go at the thing that risks failure in the first place.
Maybe that’s courage. Or maybe that’s just what it is to begin.
Andrew Pyper’s (LLB 1995) latest psychological thriller, The Only Child, was released in May.