Investigating Failure by Devon Miller-Duggan

Further thoughts on FAILURE

I have talked so much and so whiningly about my sense of being a failure that my daughters have forbidden the topic, quite reasonably. I have a couple of books out; a job teaching Creative Writing at a semi-big university; a rich and lovely family life. So the subject of My Failure in Life (I did not become famous…) and in Art is sort of off the table. I am, after all, still writing and finding meaning in it, still trying to become a better writer, still making various things whose making amuses and comforts me, still alive. I am still looking for risks to take.

It’s taken me years and years to let go of the idea that my life would only be justified by my being a brilliant and acclaimed maker of some sort. Years and years to come near being able to be grateful that I have something/anything to teach and make, and that when I write, even sometimes when I am working on a collage, my ADHD-ridden head settles, and everything in me and outside of me integrates so that there is a single, crystalline whisper in the center of my brain and feeling everything stops being a war. Even so, I would say that this is a “mostly” sort of progress.

But, more immediately, there is the question specific failures—poems that just won’t work, drawings that can’t catch the heart’s pleasure in the eye’s bounty, fiber works or collages that go splat. I love the Hassidic take Miriam quoted (and I think Yehudis Fishman’s words bear re-quoting here…):

…no intention for a positive accomplishment ever goes to waste; if it doesn’t seem to bring about its intended results, it still exists in the universe until someone, somewhere, sometime, actualizes it.

Aside from automatically validating the flops, this maybe ties into the bigger issue of an artistic life as a whole, since it seems to speak sideways about much of what teaching does. I know not all artists are or want to be teachers, but for those of us who do, there is my favorite-favorite bit from A Man for All Seasons, a play about a Christian saint written by an atheist existentialist (peace to the Mantel fans…). It seems to expand on the Hassidic idea, while focusing on one avenue:

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.
― Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

I noted, while reading over this, that I did a thing I generally do—not talk about individual failures with individual projects. They can’t be accounted for by the larger issues of audience and intention. Bigger projects—like whole manuscripts—carry their inevitable weight in terms of my sense of who and how I am. Individual projects—poems, collages, sewing projects that are NOT my daughter’s wedding gown—those are where risk is freedom and failure is just learning. If they’re poems and don’t take up space except in my drafts pile and computer file, then I’m sort of cheered by them. They remind me that failure is not artistic death. If they’re extra bad drawings, I can just ditch them and be happy for how making them took me deeper into looking. I’m believe I’m not ever going to be unhappy about having made them: I’m perfectly content to have made an attempt to write “The Poetry of Dentistry” and make it a comic poem. Boy does that one stink. There is always the chance that I might figure it out and turn it around one of these days, but meanwhile its continued existence is a bit like a by-its-nature brief friendship. It’s woven into the fabric like a slub in raw silk—the kind with different-colored warp and woof threats so that it changes colors in different light, like the stuff I made my daughter’s wedding gown from. It wasn’t perfect, either, but it was gorgeous.


The hero Aeneas left his home, the city of Troy when it was in flames, carrying his old father on his back. How often have I thought of that image, feeling the weight of my own ancestors while sometimes wishing I could just leave them behind.
Much of history is traumatic. War, slaughter, famine, plague, and genocide are hardly new. Perhaps everyone on earth is carrying trauma, simply because we are inevitably descended from survivors, even if just survivors of an Ice Age.
When I cam to New Mexico in 1984 I was immediately struck by the respect people had for their communal pasts. They cared about language, names, religion and more in ways I had not been taught to.
In my Eastern European Jewish family, life began at Ellis Island. However, my mother’s parents were storytellers. They weren’t afraid to invoke the past but it was limited, like a lamp casting a single ray in a dark room. My father’s parents did not speak of the past, although their descendants have been able to construct a version, some based on speculation. An example of this black-out–my own father was an adult before he discovered that at least two of his grandparents had come to America, and were indeed buried in Brooklyn. He’d never heard anything about this.
Since these ancestors are still all riding on my back, they often dictate my actions. They fought for justice, loved babies, ate fresh fruit, and valued education. They were also anxious, critical, shaming, and terrified of many–many–things. Fear could make them bullies–dominating who they could.
I’m second generation. My granddaughter is fourth generation American on my, her mother’s, side, and goes back to the Irish potato famine on her father’s.
I can’t put my burden down, and now that I’m old myself I don’t think I really want to. Someone recently encouraged me to focus on the good in my ancestors. It isn’t difficult.
Every morning, first thing, when I turn on a tap I thank my grandmothers for fleeing the Ukraine and landing somewhere where I can easily and simply wash and take a drink of clean water.

On Failure

I posted this on Facebook and got numerous responses.

Thoughts about failure–particularly in the realm of the creative? I’m about to embark on a time-consuming, expensive, possibly annoying, off-mission project! I’m giving it a 60% chance of “success.” And yes, I’ll talk about it once underway. But what is your opinion about chancing failure in a big way?
And I should add—I’m not looking for advice, more what YOU know. I’ve failed spectacularly from time to time, and not on purpose. I’m not sure I’d call these “learning experiences” because often I was just trying to survive the chaos. To be honest, I don’t learn well when I’m upset. However, what my old friend Peter Frank says below makes sense to me.

Peter Frank, curator and art critic:

How much (of a) failure can you afford? It’s one of the best ways to learn – at the right moment…

Yehudis Fishman, Hassidic teacher:

from a Hassidic perspective, no intention for a positive accomplishment ever goes to waste; if it doesn’t seem to bring about its intended results, it still exists in the universe until someone, somewhere, sometime, actualizes it. Good luck!

Benjamin Alire Saenz, writer:

When you do something because you need to do it, and you dive in—where is the failure. You wrote the book you needed to write. And it didn’t get published? That’s not a failure. Failure resides in taking no risks. Failure resides in standing still because you are afraid. The issue is in how we understand and interpret what we do. To try and create something beautiful that comes out of you is called living.

New Scrolls in Fairy Houses!

Where: along the dog walking path at Santa Fe Skies RV Park.

What: poems by Devon Miller-Duggan housed in recycled metal sculptures.

How to View: drop by the Park which is off of Route 14. Look for three “houses” (created by Tim Brown) for the poems: mushroom, cantina, and cabin. Read the poems, which are printed on sumingashi marbled paper by Isabel Windon-Sagan.

This is our third year of presenting poems. Thank you Devon!

Surface Tension: Poem by Miriam Sagan

Surface Tension

you are not in the fossil record

this daily life seemed real and unreal simultaneously

houseguests left and the monsoon arrived

I lay in your arms and wished for nothing more

“I use my imagination,” the tiny girl said

hummingbird moths startled us

there are borders everywhere: sometimes it is Canada, sometimes the River Styx

I thought ice cream might improve things and I was right

I’ve spent my entire life debating silver filigree earrings

I once had gills, but don’t tell my lungs

I am not interested in the unknowable—true or false?

the answer is a question
and the question?
that’s no answer

How To Piece Together A Book by Philip Graham

Here is Graham’s latest craft post, “How to Piece Together a Book,” which is now featured on his website:

How to Piece Together a Book

The essay features the Fuddles, people in one of the Oz books, who like to scatter themselves into pieces so they can then be put back together like jigsaw puzzles.
They can serve as a lesson of what to look for as we construct our books.

“We add our books together piece by scattered piece. We trust that they are secretly connected, that somehow they will eventually join the narrative’s arc together. Intuition is largely our guide here, as well as a certain dogged persistence. And then comes the time when a critical mass of addition is achieved (a point that is always different for every book), and, as in the Land of the Fuddles, a “mouth” is found: an insight that speaks with an echoing authority, which helps the writer better understand what they have been attempting.

This is the moment that a writer searches for, often unconsciously: a “mouth” of insight that will speak for more than itself. This is the point when a book switches from hopeful guesswork to far more intentional construction. Mysteries may certainly still abound, but a point of no return has been reached, and the writer increasingly believes that their book will eventually be born, its last piece finally fit into the waiting pattern.”

Today’s Haiku

cool morning
harvesting apricots
from a stranger’s tree

It’s a common practice in Santa Fe to harvest fruit from neglected trees or even windfalls from the sidewalk or street. I passed an old lady, about my age, doing just that. I wonder if she’ll make jam or sauce.