Failing at Success

missouri-riverYears ago, I was absorbed by Ken Burns’ documentary about the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Among the things that stands out all these years later is a quote Burns pulled from Meriwether Lewis’ diary on the occasion of his 31st birthday.

            This day I completed my 31st year… I reflected I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence and now soarly [sic] feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended.

 He concludes, promising,

 …in the future to live for mankind, the way I have lived heretofore for myself.

What struck me about Lewis’ lament is that it came a little more than a year into one of the greatest journeys ever undertaken. He and William Clark mapped a vast, unexplored territory, determining the true course of the Missouri River and its major tributaries. They studied plants and wildlife along their 8,000-mile trek, providing the first scientific descriptions of the grizzly bear, prairie dog and mountain goat. Their contact with Native American tribes opened trade and provided the first survey of indigenous lives and culture. How could Lewis possibly have felt he was diddling away his days? Perhaps he had impossibly high standards, or maybe he was blind to his accomplishment. Or was his birthday meditation a simple expression of mortality?

All the time I feel I’m wasting time. I’ll batter myself over spending too long on Facebook or walking downtown for my favorite coffee. But somehow, the work gets done. As in any journey, the steps add up to miles. Every hour doesn’t require some greater meaning or accomplishment. It’s the minutes that count.

Time, injudiciously spent, certainly can haunt a soul. I’ve been working on my first novel in fits and starts—between paid assignments and childrearing and housework—for about four and a half years. Most days I feel I’ve accomplished nothing, and then I’ll come across the dozens of file folders I’ve filled with research or the list of 75 books that currently comprise my bibliography. I’ll hit the “Project Statistics” button in my manuscript and see that I’m fewer than 20,000 words from a completed first draft.

Like many writers, I’m frequently flailing in a sea of self-doubt. Yet every day—often in spite of myself—I’m moving toward the shore.

Who is to say how our hours are “judiciously expended?” I rediscovered Lewis’ quote recently while rifling through my old journals. What appeared to be procrastination offered its own reward.


Photo: Missouri River,

4 Responses to Failing at Success

  1. Monica Bhide says:

    Very well said. I love your writing!

  2. Denise says:

    Thanks, Monica!

  3. Melody says:

    This is lovely, Denise, and so spot on. I wrestle constantly with that “I’m accomplishing nothing” feeling, and yet the me of ten years ago would have been stunned to know what the Me of today has accomplished. How comforting to know that even Meriweather Lewis felt like a loser sometimes.

  4. :Donna Marie says:

    Denise, I love the comparison with Lewis & Clark. I’d imagine that, although their trek had to be difficult, they enjoyed so many aspects of it, not necessarily considering it part of something bigger than themselves, they saw it as squandering time or being useless. Unlike you, I’ve barely been able to truly write in at least 6 or 7 years (my novels, which is what I’m longing to do). I’ve worked on a few picture books and accomplished a few things that way, but many things in life sidetrack, and then there are the distractions.

    I’m not a big Facebook fan (I’ve become more of a Twitter person), but the internet (and all other media) can definitely be a distraction–a tool for procrastination–and perhaps the socializing with Native Americans often felt like a social distraction. We don’t really know. The truth is, it’s only in retrospect when we can see what diversions turned out to be more. Eventually, we accomplish many goals, but not typically in a straight line, and most often never in what we consider due time.

    Great post! 😀

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