Thoughts on Failure and Success in Our Current Apocalyptic Reality
I haven’t written anything for this trash blog in a long time now. I was going to make some excuse about killing myself because of the Trump presidency and having to continue blogging as a vengeful ghost, but let’s be real. I’m just a lazy piece of shit.
My brother is thinking about not returning to medicine after having now completed everything in order to become a youtuber and I can’t say it’s stupid because he’s already got something to show. He gets a decent paycheck. His viewership is apparently growing. I’m jealous.
I’m a writer. A writer of prose fiction. I have dedicated my life to an art that many people either do not care about at all or understand purely through a select few names that have been graced with the statuses of “best-selling” or “award-winning.” I’m not complaining. There is nothing wrong with people caring more about youtubers than writers. There is nothing wrong with being a best-selling, award-winning author. These people work much harder than I do, and they deserve their success.
I don’t have much to show.
Which is not to say I don’t work hard. Or that people who don’t succeed don’t work hard. But there’s a strange capitalist myth that hard work and success go hand in hand. There’s this blind optimism, this sense of rewriting all your failures into successes that is endemic to a world that has been heavily moved by the lie of the American dream. Trump is a great example of this. The culture of self improvement that underlies most clickbait (“THIS ONE WEIRD _____ WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE”) is a great example of this. These wouldn’t be so effective if everyone was expecting their life to change for the worse.
Death of a Salesman comes to mind. If it were written today, Willy Loman would be president.
I don’t have anything against people who are trying to focus on the positive. It just seems like there’s a hair’s difference between focusing on the positive and being blind to the negative. There are people who work hard their entire lives and do not achieve what society deems as success. Wealth, renown, power.
There are people in my life who believe that I’m going to be a success. Even when I have nothing to show. I’m very lucky.
The thing about being an unsuccessful fiction writer is that there’s always someone there to subtly hint that your entire life’s choices have been a series of terrible mistakes. Now, I can’t really comment on whether or not that holds any water. There is a good chance it’s true. But I do want to comment on how I feel about my work. Namely, the duality of my feelings. On one hand I feel that to do my work at all is enough. To have something I love and which gives purpose and meaning to my brief life that is not drugs or hookers or iPhones is wonderful, yes. Simultaneously though, I feel the crushing weight of needing to “make myself into a success.” To be seen in the eyes of my peers and my family as someone who has their shit together.
I’m always torn between the two. I keep wondering what trajectory my life is supposed to be taking.
And I think about all the models I have for creative lives, how different they are, from me and from one another.
There’s Joanna Newsom, who distributed her first EP in CD-roms with cover art that looks like it was hand drawn by a friend then had text edited onto it via Microsoft Paint. She’s now renowned as one of the most critically and publicly acclaimed living harpists.
There’s Richard Siken, a poet of such unusual success with his first collection that it came as no surprise that his second took ten years. The gap between seemed to be a deathly silence, a period. The first book was in a way, perfect, and it had said more than enough.
There’s John Campbell, a brilliant webcomic cartoonist who spiraled into a public breakdown. It ended with them posting videos where they burned the books they had promised kickstarter backers, after being accused of faking depression. Quote: “What if I don’t want to talk about my sexuality on the internet? What if I don’t want to draw again? Why should I prove to people on the internet I deserve to eat and sleep? I don’t deserve to eat and sleep. I don’t deserve anything good or bad. There isn’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and there isn’t an ‘I’ to deserve them.”
There’s the fictional Benno Von Archimboldi, the figure of the writer who hovers over Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, appearing in the flesh only in its final section. He’s a recluse, a figure of solitude. The portrait of an artist as a mythical witness to life within chaos. He takes on his absurd pen name with a prophetic belief in his future success. “Fame and literature were irreconcilable enemies.” His favorite author is a dead and unpublished science fiction writer whose diary he recovered during the war. Archimboldi’s Nobel award nominated body of work may be plagiarized off of this diary.
I am not any of those people.
What does success even mean? Why should I want it? So many people are successful that I want absolutely nothing to do with. Do I really want it if that’s the kind of person I have to be to be successful in society’s eyes? Do the people around me who are working very hard want to be those kind of people, who are proud that the systems which command the world have rewarded their hard work and not the hard work of others? What right do I have to asking for success when people who are more talented and harder working than me are denied it out of luck and circumstance? If I achieve it, does that mean I’m taking the chance for it away from someone else?
Something I love about fiction is that stories about failure can be meaningful without being cautionary tales. Nobody would frame a TED talk about going bankrupt and losing their family without some glimmer of a message learned. At the very least, they would have come out of the experience stronger people. Fiction, however, can talk about failure just as a natural facet of existence. As something that can happen no matter how hard you work, or how good a person you think you are.
Reality TV is a good alternative. It is good to see real people fail, even when it is at something that does not matter at all.
The way people gloss over the reality of failure is very strange to me. The history of failure has to be much longer and more detailed than the history of success. How many Anne Franks were there whose diaries weren’t found? How many paintings that would have been priceless by modern standards have been burned? How many bridges have fallen? How many settlers died in inhospitable terrain? How many people succumbed to easily curable diseases before penicillin was discovered? What were their names? How many people are suffering right now that might deserve my comfort more than me?
Success is wealth, power, renown. It seems to me that failure is not having the means to survive in a system of cruelty. To some, success is being able to do what you want and be with the people you want. To live simply and happily.
Many people living right now will never have even that.
There is a poem by Kim Parko I think about a lot. There’s a line in it that says: “You live within a society that is responsible for the most heinous crimes. And your living condones.”
I am not sure that there is a way to live without benefiting from the suffering of others. I live in the city. All the food that I eat has been brought to my mouth by labor and death. All the ground that I walk on was worked by human hands once. Even those still suffering are benefiting from the sacrifices of those who came before them, of those still around them. Though there is no comparison. Through the lottery of birth, their gains are minuscule compared to mine.
I don’t know that I could formulate some inspirational life lesson learned from all these scattered thoughts. I just wanted to explore these feelings in words. I could never give a TED talk.
I have accepted the selfishness of success. I want to succeed. I will try to succeed. I’m not the Buddha. I won’t give up my privileges, no matter how much empathy I might have. Some people will think that makes me a bad person, and I’ll live with that.
But I have also accepted the reality of failure. The possibility that my work will never be best-selling, award-winning, or even cult classic. I think I owe it to all the people who have failed before me to at least not go charging into life with the arrogance that I could never be an unmarked grave.
I guess that’s all I have to say. Good luck, whoever reads this. I wish you success and failure.