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Come All Ye Failures

Though we wake in fear of mediocrity, let us cease to be crippled by it.
Vincent Van Gogh's Kornfeld Mit Zypressen. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Vincent Van Gogh's Kornfeld Mit Zypressen. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Welcome to No One’s Watching Week, the time of the year when the readers are away, and your tireless editors have run amok. For this week only, Atlas Obscura, the New Republic, Popular Mechanics, Pacific Standard, the Paris Review, and Mental Floss will be swapping content that is too ​out there​ for any other week in 2015.


A friend—accomplished, compassionate, smart—admitted to me this summer that she usually wakes up feeling like a failure. I momentarily froze, coffee cup in mid-lift. I couldn't believe what she was saying. Then, of course, I understood completely.

I remembered the time in graduate school when a writer who was being interviewed for a job in our department said something like what I sometimes say to myself now: "I feel like a fraud." At the time, I had no idea what he meant. How could this well-dressed poet visiting a prestigious private university feel like a fraud? (He got hired, by the way, and has had a distinguished career filled with books and awards.)

A colleague at the school where I currently teach has put it more gently: "I feel like I'm surrounded by my betters." He and I share this affliction. We can't believe our luck, we can't believe others think well of us, we still have dreams of never having finished high school math. We wake up in a sweat.

In my office of the creative-writing program I now direct (how did that happen?) there is a bookcase of alumni titles, including such luminaries as David Foster Wallace. When The End of the Tour came out, I pulled down Girl With Curious Hair and leaned my forehead against it, as if, through osmosis, I might get some of his magic.

This is the Irrational Yardstick of Success talking (if yardsticks could talk). Mostly they're busy whacking us on the head for not working hard enough, not winning more awards, not being read or viewed or "liked" by all. I tell my students the feeling of not having made a difference in the world—well, it never fully goes away. The audience is never big enough, the work never as good as it should be. This isn't just artistic envy—oh, she got into Best American Essays?—it's self-denigration, the kind that originates with not pleasing one's parents or coaches and persists through constantly finding new people to disappoint.

I think this curse disproportionally affects creatives, most of whom make things with the expectation of finding an audience and, presumably, having some effect on it. We're a techy group, famously prone to mood swings, personality disorders, depression. We have metrics for "success" that are far less clear-cut than, say, business professionals who can quantify impact through spreadsheets and earnings reports.

The cycle of creation and doubt is a kind of samsara by which we are continually broken down and re-born.

We spend years in solitude on one project. We publish poems with micro-presses and get paid in copies of the magazines that have pulled our work out of a slush pile of thousands of would-be contributors. Who reads all this? We choreograph dances, paint paintings, compile photographic portfolios, and produce experimental films in places like Tucson, Cedar Rapids, and Tuscaloosa. Far from either coast, we both welcome and loathe the label "regional." If we break through to, say, a New York publisher or a gallery in Los Angeles, the path doesn't get easier. Now we really have to not fuck up. And suddenly we're looking at those spreadsheets too. Are we moving enough of our units? Never. Will the project do well enough to justify the next thing? The cycle of creation and doubt is a kind of samsara by which we are continually broken down and re-born.

The ecotone where the solitary act of creation meets community, meets society—meets the marketplace—is full of predators, many of which are self-generated: all those failures in school, at that last committee meeting, or on dates, they circle like sharks. The voice of my hated junior high football coach—"You pussy, I never want to see your face again"—or the bloodbath of line-edits on a book manuscript that was falling apart ... they are never that far away.

Years ago, when I was working on my first book, I saw William Least Heat-Moon on C-Span's Book TV. I was watching a lot of Book TV back then, hoping to learn what a non-fiction author was like, how you carried yourself in the public eye. I fantasized about being on Book TV. So when he began his remarks by complaining that a major magazine had just rejected a piece of his, I found it comforting.

I exalted, actually. Even a wildly successful writer like William Least Heat-Moon gets rejected.

Of course there's a paradox in all this. Whatever success the yardstick measures, it's never enough. And yet it has to be. We need to find contentment both in making things and reaching people if—and it's a big if for some of us—we want to maintain emotional balance in a life driven by the pursuit of accomplishment.

David Foster Wallace was a depressive, and he took his own life.

I am too, and though I don't plan on going that way, in the months following two concussions I certainly understood the impulse. Those were hard times, ones during which I felt no urge to create anything (I had trouble walking). I felt that I'd seen the futility of making anything at all, since, like Ozymandias, we might shriek "look at what I've done," knowing—or intuiting—that it all goes to dust. Why bother? It's so damn easy to disappear.

One of my most gratifying—and poignant—activities is to shelf-read for forgotten authors in a library or used bookstore. I have found gems. Thomas Hornsby Ferril, for example. Thomas, I found you and your poems of the Colorado Rockies. I appreciated them. Who will read them in 100 years? I'm asking Thomas. I'm asking myself.

But—and this is what I should have said that day over coffee—it's OK. As badly as we might feel about what we perceive to be a relative lack of accomplishment, it's better than believing that nothing matters. I only began to heal from my most recent concussion when I started to write poems again.

That same friend whose mornings are consumed by thoughts of failure was, as we say, "there for me" when I recently crashed my truck. I thought I was about to die. I didn't. So that's a pretty good yardstick. Now, with singer Frank Turner, I can belt out, "Goddamn it's great to be alive."

I recall a Jules Verne character paraphrasing advice that I think comes from Edgar Allan Poe—that there are four conditions to happiness: the love of someone beautiful, open air, the creation of new beauty, and detachment from ambition. That last one seems odd.

But I think I understand. Ambition can crowd out the rest of his criteria, and it's not so much that the creator should feel ambition. It's that the work should be ambitious.

And the ambitions of our work, our projects, aren't ours to impose. They are for us to discover. They are best discovered from a place that doesn't self-judge or self-denigrate, a place beyond our own worst fears of not being good enough. That's where we find meaning. And solace. That's where we stop feeling like failures and start feeling like human beings.