Failing in Art and in Life
by Stephanie Feldman
There is a euphemism for unpublished novels: “novels in a drawer.” I have two of them, and though they are literally in drawers—a plastic Target storage container—I prefer to call them failures.
I’ve learned that people—writers and non-writers alike—don’t like that word. Failure. “Perhaps someday you’ll revise them,” I’m told, and: “They were essential learning experiences.” These are reasonable observation, but they’re beside the point. Yes, they were good lessons in writing and fortitude, but they are also unequivocable failures because they are the objects that, for so many years, made me a failure.
I take a bizarre pleasure, now, in using that word. Maybe because during my decade as a failed writer, the one thing that took the edge off was wallowing in that failure—carefully, in a proscribed fashion, like having a drink when you’re still hungover. Safe at Sunday brunch, but do it every day of the week and you may have a problem. My companions were stories about defeat, stories that didn’t sugar coat or gild-edge the future. Stories about bleak, absolute, irrevocable failure.
Let’s start with high culture.
Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser is a single, book-length paragraph, in which the narrator the relationships among himself, Wertheimer, and Glenn Gould, who all studied piano together. He and Wertheimer, overwhelmed by Gould’s genius, quit music. Now the narrator is at an inn, come to town in the wake of Wertheimer’s suicide. (So do not hope for redemption, reader: the game is over; failure is complete.)
The narrator and Wertheimer were both excellent pianists, but they were not Glenn Gould, and they never would be. They knew that. No amount of hard work would equal his virtuosity. So there’s nothing else to be done. They give up. They will never play as well as Glenn Gould so they will not play at all. If you are not Glenn Gould, then you are The Loser, and there is no way around it.
Most of us might see this choice as extreme, even the artists among us. You still have a lot to offer even if you are not the best—and what is the best, anyway? Isn’t it subjective? Isn’t it?
But I found a perverse joy in following Wertheimer into his misery. I didn’t have a Glenn Gould, but I was still a loser, The Loser, in my own mind. No amount of comforting words changed my failures into successes, just as no amount of labor would turn Wertheimer into Gould. I sat with Wertheimer in his miserable bourgeois town, in the apartment he kept with his miserable sister, and forsook not just the chance at being a great pianist, but being a great anything.
(Bernhard himself was a failed musician; a lung illness prevented him from pursuing singing, the same lung illness he gave to his three characters in the novel.)
Perhaps the dark attraction is in the certainty of it. Stop trying; stop looking for the bright city over the next hill, or the hill after that. Stop pretending it is ok to be a pianist who is not Glenn Gould. Be the loser you are.
The novel, for all the mental turmoil it encompasses, is structured around stasis. The narrator has come to Wertheimer’s town in the wake of his death, and spends the first three quarters of the text standing outside an inn, which we come back to periodically during his monologue, with, “I thought while standing outside the Inn.” The narrator and Wertheimer had each been writing books about Glenn Gould, books that each periodically destroyed and began again. Not only will there be no musical success if you cease to play piano; there will be nothing but the aftermath of that decision, that loserdom. You will destroy the little you create. You will spend your life standing outside an inn in a depressed rural village.
It’s a wonderful book, even if you’re not, like me, slightly obsessed with the experience of failure. Nothing happens, really; the characters are repellent; the philosophy is darkly Germanic. The voice is an unparalleled success.
I suppose I’m talking about a specific kind of failure—not failing another person, or even at a specific public task. Instead, it’s the failure of your internal view of yourself to find actualization in the world. You can be a writer without being published. But for ten years I was a writer who wrote in secret; a writer with no readers. At the same time, I hadn’t anything else to show for my time, my intelligence, my hard work, or that other word that haunted me like a gothic wraith, the return of the not-quite-repressed: potential.
There’s also something particular about artistic failure. In one sense, if you are doing, you cannot be failing. The doing is all there is. Emily Dickinson, surely, did not feel like a failure because her poems were not widely read and shared. But we practice art inside capitalism, so it’s difficult to divorce our sense of success from commerce. Not even money, exactly—we all know good art is rarely rewarded financially, and that bad art can win great wealth—but distribution, and elite recognition, which both depend on systems that are just as hierarchical, and just as divorced from the actual work and intention of art as (in the classic example) an automobile is from the eyes that monitor an assembly line.
It took me a long time to untangle work from identity. I don’t know if this is an American thing, a first-world thing, or if it’s particular to the striving, post-immigrant middle-class in which I was raised. The question we ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (Not do, but be.) Or how we introduce ourselves at parties. “What do you do?” (So I have context for who you are.) In truth, I’m still untangling, it emotionally.
We want people to see us how we see ourselves, and we want to prove ourselves worthy in some way: professional status; money, or the implication of money; or, for me, proof of intellect. For seven years, I worked at a nonprofit, where my job included a hodge-podge of IT and administrative work that never added up to a coherent whole. People outside the office didn’t understand what I did; people inside the office didn’t always understand what I did, either. (And my workplace status suffered further after I took maternity leave, but that’s another story.)
I made an effort, in my social life, not to explain my job. “Nonprofit,” I would say. “Some of this, some of that.” Then I would change the subject. Similarly, I told very few friends about my writing. The topic skirted too closely to a conversation about my failure. The underlying question about writing: Why hasn’t it been published? The underlying questions about my job: Why was I still there? Would I always be there? Was I not capable of anything greater?
Around the same time, I discovered the short-lived cult comedy Party Down. It’s a one-camera, half-hour about a catering company in L.A., whose staff is all composed of aspiring Hollywood stars, pulling down minimum wage while working for their big breaks.
Like in Bernhard’s Austrian classical-music world, there is no in between; there is only being a film star (or blockbuster screenwriter, or celebrated comedian, or…) and being a cater-waiter. The show piles degradation on its characters. It’s not that they’re in the service industry, it’s that their clients almost universally treat them like garbage. They are humiliated. Even team leader Ron Donald, who dreams not of Hollywood fame but the reasonable goal of owning a Souper Crackers franchise, faces failure; his degradation is usually the worst.
The only two people who escape are rival caterer Uta, who has made a calling of excelling at food service, and waiter Constance, who is oblivious to her own failure. Her greatest role was as … decades before, but she insists she’s not a waiter. She’s an actor.
My favorite episode takes place at Steve Gutenberg’s house. Steve (playing himself) forgot to cancel his Party Down reservation, so he invites the gang to enjoy the spread at his house. Comedian Casey finds a DVD of an independent film our protagonist Henry once made, and watches it, and discovers that Henry is a good actor. He’s very good. She tells Henry. It doesn’t make him feel better.
At the end of the episode, everyone is in the Goot’s hot tub, drinking champagne in their underwear, enjoying a great end to a great day. Gutenberg generously, and sincerely, tells the group that almost everyone with talent makes it someday. Henry asks, “But what if you’re that one guy?”
There is a brutal pause. Gutenberg changes the subject, and everyone laughs about something else. Cut to Henry’s face: the face of a Loser. Cut to black.
The black screen lands like a brick. It’s a fraction of a second, maybe, before the theme plays, but the blackness lingers. I like to think of that moment as the sitcom version of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych screaming for three days at the horror of death. First, because failure can feel like a kind of death. Second, because it reminds me that failure is not actually death. Lighten up a little.
For a few years I considered pursuing a Ph.D. in English, until my advisor compared finding a tenure-track job at a “top” university to making the major leagues, and I realized I didn’t need a new way to fail. I wanted to study eighteenth-century British literature. (And had I succeeded—would the world have found another such scholar useful? Was my choice of research a failure in itself?) Specifically: gothic literature. For all their pulpy, melodramatic output, authors in this field had some serious philosophical concerns.
One of them was how texts affect readers. In eighteenth-century fashion, their theories are filled with primitive ideas about how nerves function in bodies. Anatomy aside, they contemplated “the sublime,” that experience that overwhelms the senses, defies words—the awe inspiring mountain range, the horrifying corpse. Yes, the sublime, especially as they pursued it, was often gruesome and frightening.
Edmund Burke, the era’s first and final word on the sublime, explained that we love the sublime in art because it is experience at a distance. No one wants to be pursued by a murderous and evil monk, or haunted by the bloody ghost of a nun, but the reader takes pleasure in experiencing the thrill while knowing that she is safe all along.
For me, perhaps, it was a little different. I was already caught by my evil monk, and these stories were doing just what I couldn’t: put the wordless experience into form. Wertheimer’s suicide. Henry’s face in the hot tub. Many days, my own failure lurked in the shadows, too terrible for me to look at straight on, but I read the words, I watched the screen, again and again. I stared it straight in its miserable face and felt relief.
Being a woman makes all of this more complicated. (As do other facets of our social identity, but this is what I can speak to.) I did have a boyfriend, then fiancé and husband, which I knew in many people’s eyes gave me a measure of success. My parents’ generation; my girlfriends en route to doctorates who knew better than to envy early coupledom, but still. I took no comfort from this social approval; actually, it made me feel worse. This certainly wasn’t the kind of success I had dreamed of my whole life. If anything, being happily partnered but professionally stunted made me feel like more of a failure. A throwback. Not the woman the revolutionaries burned their bras for.
Soon my body conspired in my feminist failure. A chemical switch tripped within me and I became desperate for a baby. We were young, at least by twenty-first-century New York City standards, and I hadn’t established a career. But why wait? It’s not like I have anything else going on, I argued both self-pityingly and honestly.
You have to finish your book first, my husband said. He was optimistic enough to use the word “book”; I called it a novel, which it would be, my third, whether in hardcover or in another plastic drawer.
I hadn’t completely shed my over-achiever attitude, I suppose, because I said that I could finish it with a baby, and I would—and in fact, I did.
But I also knew—as I grew larger, and then later, during those eternal nights in a rocking chair—that that novel was my last chance. That there was no way I could write a fourth novel with both a baby and a job. Sure, maybe someday, when she was older—when the siblings we hoped she’d someday have were older—I would try writing again. But maybe, by then, I wouldn’t want to. I would have made peace with being the Loser, and decided it wasn’t so bad to focus on something else instead. I would tell myself that at least I had tried.
I suspected, though, that I might shed the desire but not the resentment. I was terrified of resenting my child—terrified, also, by a friend with children telling me, oh you’ll love them too much for that. You’ll resent your husband instead.
I was terrified of having to someday tell my daughter that I wanted to be a writer, but instead I had been a loser, and given up.
Well, there’s a happy ending to my story. That third novel became a book.
Let’s take a moment to enjoy that.
There’s a truism I’ve always liked about desire. Here’s Samuel Johnson’s version of it: “[T]he happiness of man remain[s] imperfect, as wants in this place are easily subscribed, new wants likewise are easily created.” For instance, the graduate student wants to be a professor; the professor wants tenure; the tenured professor wants something else; and so on.
This example comes from the same professor who convinced me to forgo graduate school. Ultimately, I think, his assessment of higher education was correct, but it also infuriated me.
Must all success be like this—founded more on luck than talent or hard work? An axe finding a gold deposit, a record executive pausing his car at the gas station when he hears the virtuoso singing to herself while she pumps?
It depends what success looks like, and the definition of success, like desire, fluctuates with circumstances, just to ensure you never achieve it.
Unless you follow another piece of advice recently given to me. “Have low expectations. Then you’ll never be disappointed.” (/never be a failure).
Here’s my version of Samuel Johnson’s observation: success only leads to new ways to fail. In my case, the triumph of publication yields the hurdles of reviews and book sales. Getting any reader’s attention at all. You can imagine. Facing those new, public rejections for the first time—after thinking I had finally defeated the worst kind of rejection—was crushing. I rewatched Party Down. I took The Loser off the shelf. I felt a little better, but truthfully, it didn’t take me long to recover. Maybe I’m older, wiser, naturally less giving of fucks, but I was able to appreciate the absurdity of it all, and thereby become—if not impervious—better protected from it.
I am the Loser, but not all the time. The business of writing can’t ruin the pursuit of writing. Well it could. But then, no matter how much money or renown I accumulate, it would never be enough. I would be doomed to being the Loser.
My book deal was a glorious surprise to most of my friends and family, who had no idea I was writing a novel. It was, as I hoped, pretty great, and I made a point to enjoy every second of it, just as I made a point to enjoy my publication day. You have to treasure those moments on the peak before the trudging begins again.
When I shared the good news with my boss, she said, “This is really going to raise your profile with the president [of the organization].” And I burst out laughing. The president’s approval—her recognition of my intellect, of my achievement, perhaps seeing for the first time that I’m more than the lowly bachelor degree who assisted her with mail merge—meant absolutely nothing to me.
Just as I learned valuable lessons from my novels in the drawer, I found something even more valuable in the black hole of failure, which, done right, can accelerate one of the great gifts of aging.
Not giving a shit what other people think about you.
Here’s one cute story I tell about writing my book. I began writing about two sisters, and before I knew it, one of them had a baby; and before I knew it (again), the whole story hinged around that baby. I looked at the turn my story had taken, and it helped me realize how much I wanted a baby of my own.
Here’s a less cute story about writing my book, one that has only now become clear to me. The main character, Marjorie, is a modern-day over-achiever. A Tracy Flick type (though not well rounded), or Leslie Knope (but not civic-minded). In pre-Christian terms, she’s the hero with a heavy dose of hubris. Marjorie ultimately finds herself in the position to accept a cosmic, impossible deal—to sign a contract with terms that have destroyed every other signer in history.
I don’t want to give away too many details, but I will tell you this. When I wasn’t lying on my couch, finding unexpected solace in calling myself a Loser, I was writing about a woman who can conceive of herself as no one other than Glenn Gould. Until the day she dies, she will be—if not Glenn Gould—on her way to becoming Glenn Gould.
Marjorie’s idea of success changes, but in every circumstance, failure is not an option. It’s hard not to admire someone like that; hard not to, occasionally, imagine that you feel the same way.
Stephanie Feldman‘s debut novel, The Angel of Losses, is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award. It is now available in paperback. Stephanie teaches fiction writing at Arcadia University and lives outside Philadelphia with her family.