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.

We Are The Champions

I love Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” As does all of humanity. It is the rock anthem par excellance–and of course the winning team’s.
But when it comes on the car radio and I weep a little and sing along I’m not thinking about winning. I’m thinking about failure. I’m thinking about all I’ve lost and all I’ve struggled with and how at 59 years old (next month!) I still have the ability to go on and rise to the occasion. When I was a young window and a single mom, it was my song. When I didn’t get what I wanted professionally or health-wise or financially–mine.
I know I’m not alone. There are millions like me driving around in old Toyotas singing along. Running between daycare and care taking. Trying to substitute a kind word for mere knee jerk rudeness. Not giving the finger to the car that cuts us off.
The B side of the hit (ah, I miss B sides) was “We Will Rock You.” One of my favorite memories is coming into my daughter’s pre-school to be greeted by a grubby chorus line of kids on the playground chanting “We will we will rock you.” Indeed they did.
And we’ll keep on fighting to the end.