OR, YOU ARE NEVER WHERE YOU THOUGHT YOU’D BE, LOSER!
NOTE: This is a companion piece to THE TYRANNY OF ONE. You don’t need to read it first, but you may want to afterwards.
My life and career are not what I’d planned. Once I got my act together as an adult, I believed the tried and true message that hard work, goal setting, and validation by institutions would provide me a life with some stability. The picture I’d had, of a married life where I worked at a university and wrote novels and academic or pop history books was utterly derailed by compounded tragedies that forced me to survive, re-evaluate, and recuperate in a rotten economic climate. Like younger historians, I’m not working full time in academia, despite best efforts (but when close to a thousand new grads pop out annually, without commensurate job openings, the competition isn’t just tough, it’s stupid).
By the standards of the life I’d pictured having by now, I’m a rank failure.
Wait, it gets better!
Because of this failstate, I’ve been forced to build a life that was outside my plan. What I’ve cobbled is a Frankensteinian combination of work, self-generated as well as within institutions, that deal with my rather bizarre skill set: professional military historian, professional writer of fiction and essays, professional improv actor, professional teacher.
In most writing books, failure is discussed in terms of rejection. I’m tired as fuck of these stories, and I say that having some of my fail stats as part of the curriculum at the Odyssey Writing Workshop (243 rejections to get 14 short story sales in one year). Failure is used to demonstrate the perseverance that leads to success. And that’s a good lesson.
But I don’t need to learn perseverance. I’ve endured shit that would drive some folks to the bottle or suicide and kept going. Box-checked.
What I want to know more about is what to do with failure when you’re still in its grips, how to think about it in terms of small pieces and massive collections, with regards to WHY ARE YOU HERE AND WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH YOUR FOUR-SCORE-AND-TEN AS IT DEPLETES VERY, VERY QUICKLY?
There’s a smaller voice in writing circles about rejections being part of the process of revision. That part is ringing truer to me these days. Because, as a stubborn son of a bitch, I endure well. I come from peasant stock with roots in occupied Eastern Europe and Dickensian poor houses. My family emblem is a bull. Endure? Try me.
But I have a harder time looking at failure and trying to make sense of it, and even worse, having people give input on why it failed so that maybe good will come of the fail. Why is harder?
There’s an old algorithm in my brain that says “Any mistake in your work is evidence of your complete failure as a human being. Loser! Loser! Loser! Better hide that fail or all your efforts will turn to piss.”
Now, that’s a massive jump in logic. There’s no truth in it. But that doesn’t dampen that voice. For as long as I can recall, when people give me good advice on my work that may be failing in some respect, it goes two ways:
- I see what they’re saying, and it’s great insight that will make the work stronger. I thank them for it and then use their input to make something better.
- That looped tape about me being a sack of turds born to fail starts up and I get quiet. Quick. It’s better at a distance in time and space. Up close and personal, I feel a self-hatred that churns like the Atlantic Ocean against the Eastern seaboard in winter.
Guess which one blooms 99% of the time?
So, imagine the tsunami of grief when I look at where I am and where I thought I’d be as a human being. I wish I could be zen about this and say: wherever you are is where you’re supposed to be. But I can’t. My old paradigm is crushing. I have to make sense and do things with failure.
I told myself that the catastrophe of my life in 2013 would be transformative. It has been so, and much good has risen with me, but it has also turned out to be far harder than I anticipated (though better from where I used to be by several orders of magnitude).
So, I’ve pieced some thoughts together on failure and its impact on career and self. The late Melanie Tem, a beautiful person and writer who was one of my early mentors, once noted that the only way she could process the grief of her son’s death was to remember: other parents had also survived and recovered from such tragedy (the novel she wrote of the experience, Black River, is almost too painful for words). While failing to reach career stability as a writer is inconsequential compared to grief over dead loved ones, the value of models of behavior to what I call failstates is instructive.
Again, I’m choosing comedians over writers of fiction. Why? First, because both cases here also show something I saw when writing THE TYRANNY OF ONE: in the arts, it’s not just endurance, but a willingness to grow and find new opportunity (rather than being only bull-headed) that allows for the mutation of a career into what it can be (which is ever changing, even if we hate change). Second, most writers don’t write about needing to change. Or failure beyond rejection.Just perseverance. And I think we’d do better if we thought about the value of self-reflection and fine tuning and finding our voice in the heart of failures. . . even if it takes us miles away from the ONE THING WE THOUGHT WE WERE MEANT TO DO.
* * *
Steve Martin’s career is inspiring for oddballs and strange ducks. He once noted that he was never great at any one thing, so he made an act that focused on many things he was good at: comedy, acting, juggling, magic, music, philosophy and absurdity. It wasn’t normal fair, but combined with his natural charisma, his act got him (and lost him) work as a performer on TV and a writer on The Smother’s Brothers. All the while he was refining, adjusting, and thinking about how his act operated. Through the late sixties he opened for bigger acts to small acclaim and boos. But then, the big time called! He was asked to perform on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
“There was a belief that one appearance on The Tonight Show made you a star,” Martin recalled in his memoir. “But here are the facts. The first time you do the show, nothing. The second time you do the show, nothing, the sixth time you do the show, someone might come up to you and say, ‘Hi, I think we met at Harry’s Christmas party.’ The tenth time you do the show, you could conceivably be remembered as being seen somewhere on television. The twelfth time you do the show, you might hear, ‘Oh, I know you. You’re that guy.” Tired of TV work, despite the pay check, he hit the road in the early 70s as a solo comedian. Here he learned to work the crowds in dives, occasionally open for bankroll talent, and refine his act. It was playing in these nowhere spaces that his act began to mutate. Largely by improvising.
When a set ended and there was no backstage at the club, he made “leaving” the show part of his set, ad libbing and improvising as he did so. And so the crowd followed him. Including to McDonalds, where he ordered three hundred hamburgers, saw how much they cost, and got a small fries. Absurdist moments of silliness were thrown at the crowd as well as the magic and jokes and songs and a new physicality that made him exhausted but sated after the set. Even using silence for mock contempt was added. He ditched dressing like his hippy audience and wore a suit. “The act was becoming simultaneously smart and stupid.”
Two years of this refined and improved set got him little to no press. No big pay day. Even with Tonight Show appearances, his name was “a rumor.” Ten years of learning by doing in theater, magic, TV writing and appearances . . . still eating road food. Four years on the road as the main task, Martin was emerging into his own and flopping at the Playboy Club before hitting North Carolina’s Hub Pub Club . . . in a mall.
In January 1975, Martin kept a diary. What he recounted during this long dark night of the soul felt eerily familiar to me, trying to find my place in art and life. The grind of show after show grew as he arrived in Winston-Salem.
“My material seems so old. The audience indulged me during the second show . . . My act might as well have been in a foreign language . . . my act has no ending . . . My new material is hopelessly poor. My act is simply not good enough-it’s not even bad.”
Desperate, he called a friend and vented his spleen. She helped him balance himself in the wake of the repetitive and draining hardships.
Instead of abandoning his work, Martin pushed the limits. He’d found his crowd, even if no one else had: younger, avant garde San Franciscans. His persona as a righteous star who played banjo and had no tech support . . . killed. He got bolder. And it gelled. “The disparate elements I’d begun with ten years before had become unified: my road experience had made me tough as steel, and I had total command of my material. But must important, I felt really, really funny.” His career bloomed afterwards, gaining traction with people that read Rolling Stone and were tuning into the new comedy show Saturday Night Life. Before you say anything about comic timing, remember the decade of busting his ass and highs and lows.
Most writing columns would focus on Martin’s perseverance, the endurance, the stick-with-it-ness. But equally important was that he kept thinking and trying new things, he produced newer material, lost others, and began to find his voice. He wasn’t doing the same thing, over and over until the audience got it. He kept trying new things, refining, reconsidering, rejecting, and injecting. And failure was there, every step, including that dark space two-months away from his “turning point” into steady success (fiscally and creatively). At that cusp, he thought he was doing junk. Which is where outside perspectives and letting your brain cool from the grind of failure count toward making your best work. A trick I have yet to master.
The value in perseverance isn’t just that you hit the same drum until someone hears your genius. It’s that you get better, and that requires failure being your friend to help you ask: is this my best? Martin had to change to become who he would be. He probably thought he’d “made it” ten years prior when he was writing for the Smother’s Brothers, or on Carson, or you name it. In some way, he had to fail to make the changes that would turn him into the comic that caught fire. And he did it by not being like the rest. He didn’t look like the comic he’d started out as a decade before. And his career afterwards is filled with new challenges (film, novels, plays, musicals,). No tyranny of one here.
In a similar fashion, consider comedian and podcaster Marc Maron. For twenty-five years, Maron’s charisma and talent warred with his self-loathing, acerbic behavior and drug addictions to fuel and ruin his career at every turn. And because he’d burnt so many bridges, when he got clean the world saw him as a washed out has-been no one wanted to work with. In his keynote lecture of the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal in 2011, he laid his heart on the line about how he never “made it” in the industry. He still resents never making it, and resents the success of contemporaries like Jon Stewart and Louis CK, and for putting 25 years into a career that, at one point, was so tarnished that he couldn’t get a job washing dishes. No one would work with him. Suicide seemed a positive career choice. He was living in a pure failstate.
In 2009, out of options in the regular comedy industry, he started a podcast. He interviewed OTHER people. For a man who loves attention, that was a hell of a swing. But he soon learned how to empathize and get people to open up, in part because he was as open about his narcissism, depression, and failures: despite successes, Maron was known as a talented failure. And by taking the focus off himself, he pulled a resurrection act that no one in comedy could have predicted: millions of downloads, dozens of “star” interviews, ranging from Will Ferrill to President Barack Obama. But twenty-five years of gigs, unsuccessful pilots, HBO shows, and, burning most bridges forced Maron to change. Failstate gave him no other option than to find something he’d never have considered before, a new version of himself as an artist.
Speaking to the young comedians, he noted “Some of you aren’t that great. Some of you may get better. Some of you are great . . . now. Some of you may get opportunities even when you stink. Some of you will get them and they will go nowhere and then you have to figure out how to buffer that disappointment and because of that get funnier or fade away. Some of you may be perfectly happy with mediocrity. Some of you will get nothing but heartbreak. Some of you will be heralded as geniuses and become huge. Of course, all of you think that one describes you . . . hence the delusion necessary to push on. Occasionally everything will sync up and you will find your place in this racket. There is a good chance it will be completely surprising and not anything like you expected.”
I try to remember that when crushed by the shadow of a dead paradigm. I know I haven’t “landed” my career yet. The terrifying thing is I might not. Hell, there may be no landing (but by Pluto’s pitchfork do I hate the phrase “it’s a process”). But if there is, it will be in a shape I could not expect, and may require me to refine and readjust what it means to be a writer, historian, improv actor, etc. and be open to something that might seem out of reach, out of touch, or otherwise odd, and keep risking a failstate, even with all the fine tuning.
But it was ever thus and so.
See, it got better!