Thursday, March 15, 2012

An ode to failure

Failure is the path to success. (I say this because I consider myself a consummate failure. I'm biased.) Yes, I know it sounds pat and perhaps trite. But nothing worthwhile is possible without failure and rejection and pain.


I started my college years in a graphic design program. I thought I belonged there because the only thing I was any good at in high school was art.

I hated the program. I didn't feel like my instructors actually taught anything. We did project after project without much direction. Only after we were in the very late stages of an assignment did we receive our teachers' input, and by input I mean criticism. Usually by then it was too late to do anything about it.

I made lots of Bs and I considered each one to be a failure. I wanted to be making As. I didn't care so much about the projects themselves, I just wanted to be successful and to be recognized as such. I hated being in front of people and having my shortcomings examined.

Excuse me, did I say "my shortcomings"? I meant the shortcomings of my work. Except I really meant mine, because in my mind they were one and the same.


After a year and a half I left the program to study horrible things that happened in the past as well as horrible things that are still happening today. I continued trying to make art, but grew more and more frustrated with my output. I felt I was not improving, that my technique had stagnated and was indeed growing worse. And eventually I quit drawing and painting all but completely. I very rarely do it now.

For years I couldn't think about art or design without feeling like a catastrophic loser. Only very recently have I been able to look back at that time without feeling ashamed.

No one told me to feel this way. I decided I sucked on my own.

After some time (as long as I could manage) I accumulated 120 credits and was made to leave college. I failed to find a job in my field (although what field that was I'm still not exactly sure) and ended up working as a secretary.

By this time my interest in dance had ballooned immensely. Dance occupied all of my free time and then some. I felt desperate to try to make it my career. And after only two years of full-time employment I quit, hoping I could perhaps work a part-time job and get by otherwise on dance alone.

This didn't work. I tried teaching as many as six classes a week at one point, desperate to reach out to students in different areas. At many of these classes, due to rent and gas, I was making a loss.

I felt like a moron for quitting my job. I felt like a delinquent for not having a job. I felt like a failure because my plan wasn't working. I felt horrible.

In 2010 I stopped teaching many of my classes. Simultaneously, my hours at my part time job were decimated. I had nothing to do and was bringing in next to no income.

I stared into the void. The void told me to write a novel about vampires.

No, I thought, that's a really stupid idea. I should try to get another job. A real job, with regular hours, where I put on normal clothes and go into a normal office with normal people. I did some listless job-hunting online and submitted a few applications to a few places. I never heard back.

I wrote the novel, still thinking it was a stupid idea. Then I rewrote it five times. I started teaching dance classes again. The classes grew. The classes shrank. I got a second part time job.

Now the novel is finished. I consider it my first successful project. Not that I have convinced someone to publish it yet (I haven't), or even to represent it (nope not that either), but because I love it from the bottom of my heart. It might be total crap, but it is my beloved crap, the crap I have poured my heart and soul into.

Why can I love this crap when I couldn't love most of my previous crap?

Perhaps because I saw it as an experiment, a way to express something weird within me, and not as a competition with some Platonic ideal of high art or literature. I suppose I failed to live up to that ideal so many times, eventually I was forced to realize that all I will do for the rest of my life is fail to live up to the ideal.

I accepted my status as a complete failure, said "fuck it", and kept working anyway. The time since then has been the only time in my life when I have ever been able to feel like I have accomplished any measure of success.


We define success or failure by our own version of the ideal. Now every time I feel trapped my by own ideals, I remind myself that I'm a failure and I get right back to work. And I'm almost always proud of what I manage to accomplish.

Since I've accepted myself as a failure I don't care so much about impressing other people. I've realized I'd rather communicate with other people, or at least entertain them, than impress them.

I would still love to make a living, or even half a living, from my writing or from dance. But even if I never do, it can't make me any more of a failure.


Failure is an intrinsic part of making art. Artists transmit ideas into reality, but it isn't a download kind of process; the works we create will never and can never perfectly match our ideas of what the work should be. Our mediums are flawed. Reality and the mind don't mesh perfectly. Even verbalizing an idea distorts it somehow.

You must accept that you will fail and then make the attempt anyway. Every attempt will result in failure.

I lied to you earlier. Failure is not really the path to success. Success is just a particularly appealing brand of failure. Failure is all that there is.

I look back and I am glad for all the ways I have failed. I look forward and hope to keep failing with my whole heart.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Side effects

So I am on a new drug that's supposed to help me manage my Fibromyalgia pain. For quite a long time I was terrified of getting pharmaceutical help for my condition, but after a resounding success with a sleep drug I started last year I thought what the hell, let's give this a shot too.

The drug, which I don't really want to call out by name--let's just say it's popular for FMS--is sort of helping with the pain, by means of inducing a state in which I feel my nerves are swaddled in cotton. An odd swimming sensation sometimes overcomes me and I hear "Across The Universe" on near-constant repeat. (last detail an exaggeration)

I am not sure I like the main effect of the drug, not to mention the side effects.
I'm having some side effects. Or at least I think I am. Sometimes it's hard to tell what's the drug and what's me being a hypochondriac freak.

First off, I think it's thrown off my equilibrium. I can't spin like I normally can without feeling dizzy, and I feel unstable on my toes. This might not sound so bad--how often do you have to spin around until you make yourself sick?--but spinning is a big part of what I do for fun and sometimes profit, i.e. bellydance. But is this really because of the drug or because I didn't practice much in December?

Doubt sets in.

My hunger impulses are out of whack. I don't feel particularly hungry at all, ever. But I always feel like I could eat. After eating a good meal I don't really feel full. Is this me or the drug?
So I try not to eat except at meals, knowing I can just keep eating mindlessly if I don't police myself. Then sometimes I start to feel lightheaded. Is this from hunger or is it another side effect?
I feel tired and forgetful. Often I'm not sure what I should be doing, but I feel I should be doing something. I have trouble with word recall and sometimes when faced with a complex problem my brain simply freezes up and throws a Blue Screen of Death. But, uh, welcome to being Sara. I've been this way for as long as I can remember. Is this me or the drug?
Sometimes I feel happy, like REALLY happy, for no goddamn reason. Less often I feel inexplicably sad. Me or the drug?

I could go on.

For years, my doctors placed my well being squarely in my hands. At the time there was no drug for Fibromyalgia. I was on my own. Eat right, sleep enough and on a regular schedule, and exercise enough (but not too much) and you will feel all right, they said.

Now, as a result, whenever I feel shitty I immediately want to blame myself. If I hadn't slept in 30 minutes, I'd feel okay. If I had exercised yesterday I'd have more energy. If I hadn't waited to eat breakfast I wouldn't have a headache.

And now, experiencing these symptoms, I'm not sure what is at fault: me or the drug. I'm awfully confused. I want to believe that in the end the drug will help, because I want to believe there is a solution. Somewhere deep in my shriveled heart I still want to believe that I can feel well most of the time. Not because health itself is that appealing to me, but because I feel like my condition gets in the way of my dreams. Sometimes I let myself think about what I could be like if I just had some energy.

I don't want to sound maudlin. My bad days are really not so bad. I'm never going to die from this and it probably isn't going to get worse unless I let myself go. But hope opens you up to this odd feeling: the idea that in returning back to normal something has been lost.

Should I put up with the side effects and hold on to that hope or should I give up?