The first time I received an “F” on an exam was in my third-year as an undergraduate, in a Statistics course. Since I never understood the universal language of mathematics, perhaps the grade did not come as a surprise. But failure, when materialized as a letter on a piece of letter, felt surreal, even though we live in a reality that canonizes success and productivity. Ten years and three degrees later, I am no closer to understanding the meaning of success or the possibility of survival after failure.
As children, as students, the idea of failure was clear. Failure was low grade point average; failure was the mischievous classmate who was always being scolded by the teacher; failure was detention and straight F’s; failure was suspension for drug abuse. We could categorize the failed as “others”, and safely enclose ourselves within the fences of the “saved”. But as adults, we grow to realize that the fence had never existed in the first place, that success was illusory and glory unrealizable. I can no longer claim anything, the prestige of institutions can no longer protect me, and hard work sometimes amounts to emptiness.
Although I do not miss exams, success seemed easier as a student. The goals were attainable and visible, taking the form of a row of A’s down a sheet. The criteria were clear-cut, and once I reached a goal, I moved forward in the game. At the time, the game seemed interminable and I yearned to grow up. But as professionals, we work towards elusive goals that slip out of our grasp. When is it ever enough?
“I am a failure”. That is the phrase to which I wake up every morning and from which I attempt to escape by burying the mind beneath hours of easy entertainment. Having extensive experience as a failure, I’m not sure whether it is possible to “fail better”, as Beckett says. Failing is a lonely place to be, because it is not something one can articulate to others, regardless of whether they too have failed.
I recently learned that the literary community bears more an uncanny resemblance to the academe from which I longed to escape, and the fear is that writing is yet another item to add to my infinite list of failures. Perhaps some artists thrive on failure – Van Gogh and Herman Melville comes to mind. And literature is to some extent fascinated with characters who are failures, who exist on the margins of life. There are countless films about the unremarkable life, quietly lived and quietly erased. Readers might desire to be voyeurs of such lives, but they might not want to be the protagonist.
In my research days, I was fascinated by stories about artists who battled the anxiety of accomplishment. Self-defeatist mentality and a lurking sense of inadequacy meant that works of art were often left incomplete. Fragments are alluring and metaphorically meaningful, and like architectural ruins, they point to wholeness eluded and completion thwarted. The nineteenth-century English architect John Soane, for example, imagined his own construction as a magnificent ruin, prophesying the inevitable triumph of time and self-doubt (more on this in another post, maybe).
Thomas De Quincey, another Romantic preoccupied with thoughts of failure, lamented his own ability to complete a project:
“[The work] was now lying locked up […] like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct […] instead of surviving me as a monument of wishes at least, and aspirations […] it was likely to stand a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations laid that were never to support a superstructure, – of the grief and ruin of the architect.”
“The grief and ruin of the architect” – this is something I feel keenly. Unfinished stories and a ruinous novel lie somewhere in the labyrinth of notebooks and computer files, next to a thesis that never saw the light of publication. Does the possibility of failure diminish the writing and thinking process in any way? Does it rob the project of meaning? How do I shore these fragments against my ruin? More importantly, how to keep on writing in spite of failure?
In my notebook, I keep a printed copy of a Guardian article in which seven writers recount their experiences of failure. I always keep the sheet with me because I cannot anticipate at what time of the day these words of consolation might come in handy. I read a little, drink some tea, nap or go for a walk, chat with a friend, and eventually some of the fragments coalesce just a little so that writing can continue. So this is the daily process, and every day there is a tiny window during which creativity seems like salvation and I actually consider myself a writer. The next day, I wake up to find the boulder at the bottom of the hill. No matter. Try again. Fail again.