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.