On Failure

My next guest blogger is Jennifer R. Hubbard, author of three novels for young adults and a book on writing. I’m intrigued by Jennifer’s discussion of “failure narratives.” We’re conditioned by books and public speakers and various superstars and heroes to believe in ourselves, and to know we can do anything, which might inspire us but also prepares us poorly for other outcomes: ordinary, boring lives. I recall that the eponymous hero of Jude the Obscure was fixated for a time on the folktale of Dick Whittington; a favorite of mine, too, when I was a boy. Of course Jude is bound for a less fairy-tale existence. The minor classic, Stoner, by John “not-the-composer” Williams has a similar theme. Recommend your own in the comments, particularly those that perhaps celebrate the heroic struggles of those ragamuffin wanderers who never find a magic bottle.

jennifer hubbardYou would think writers would talk more about failure, since it’s such an integral part of the job description. We fail a lot. We abandon manuscripts, collect rejections, have projects canceled. Most traditional books don’t earn out their advances, which means they don’t hit their sales goals. We hear “no” a lot more than we hear “yes.”

Failure especially comes as a shock if we’ve had some success first. We expect to fail at the beginning of our careers, when we’re inexperienced. And we love the narrative of failure as a precursor to success; we love an earned happy ending. We love when the earlier pain proves to have purpose and meaning. But we don’t think of success as temporary. Once we’ve arrived, we don’t expect to get kicked out of the party. Why we expect this, I don’t know. We’ve read the cautionary biographies; we’ve seen the biopics. We’ve all seen famous names fade from view. Few people stay on top forever.

While failure sometimes comes from not working hard enough or not knowing enough—the problems we can control and overcome—it also comes from dozens of other little factors we can’t control or even foresee, such as fashion and timing, illness and disaster, culture shifts and technological changes. For every person who follows a formula to success, thousands of others follow the same formula and fail.

The simple fact is that failure is more common and more likely.

I have searched for failure narratives where failure is not just a precursor to success. They are rare and powerful. There’s Susan Allen Toth’s “Summa,” a chapter in her memoir Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, about ambition and perfectionism and loss, about what happens when you don’t live up to your potential, about how a couple of bad days can wipe out years’ worth of work. There is Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, in which the “breaking” overwhelms the “making.”

Loner in the GarretIn I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron wrote one of the most honest essays about failure that I’ve ever read (“Flops”). She was referring to movies, but her main conclusions apply more widely. In short, failure is painful and unpredictable. We don’t necessarily learn from it, and we don’t necessarily forget it. Failure can scar. In short, all the things we fear about failure are true.

Even as I write this, I feel the pressure to steer toward a positive message. Which may be why we don’t discuss the bitterness of failure much: What a downer! But for me, there is comfort in a few of these truths. First, since failure is a lot more common than success, we have plenty of company when we fail. Second, most failures are not fatal. And third: You never know. If failure is unpredictable, so is success. Some people say that neither failure nor success is as important as trying. (A variation of that sentiment even appears in the Olympic ideal, as voiced by Pierre de Coubertin.) I don’t know that I’d go that far—yet here I am, trying still.

Jennifer R. Hubbard (www.jenniferhubbard.com) is the author of three novels for young adults and several short stories. Her most recent book, Loner in the Garret: A Writer’s Companion, discusses failure and success and everything in between. She lives near Philadelphia with an understanding husband, a pile of books and chocolate, and a melodramatic cat.

3 thoughts on “On Failure

  1. Sometimes I wonder how much the avoidance of discussing failure is an American phenomenon. We live in such a culture of achievement and success, of winners and losers. People who talk about being losers run the real risk of being labeled whiners or crybabies, or being told to “get over it.” I don’t know if that’s true in other parts of the world, but it certainly seems to be the case here. At this point, I’d have to say that I’m a failure as far as writing goes. I’ve gotten well over 100 pages into several (4-6?) drafts of different novels, and produced more than 50,00 words of a nanowrimo draft, but I wouldn’t call that finished, even as a draft. It seems the overwhelming emotion attached to failure (again, at least in this culture) is shame, which suggests that many people–some unconsciously, some not–attach failure to some moral flaw on the part of the one who failed: laziness, lack of discipline, stupidity, greed, ignorance. We don’t like to admit that succeeding or failing may not be in out control, which would require accepting a level of arbitrariness in life that our culture feels unwilling to tolerate. Well, my 2 cents has ballooned into a dollar’s worth, but those are my thoughts.

  2. Thank you, Jennifer. You reminded me to pull out my copy of Ephron’s last book and re-read FLOPS. You also got me thinking about *any* story of failure that is not a success narrative. Specifically in kid-lit. I’m still thinking. Hard.

  3. Thanks so much for hosting me, Kurtis, and thanks to the commenters for adding to the discussion. I agree that there can be shame and stigma, and that we like to feel in control.

    Mirka–I can think of a few YA novels with very dark endings that aren’t success stories. They are rare. And even rarer are stories about living with failure, about the middle ground between being destroyed and being triumphant.

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