Most Things Don’t Work Out
Through dint of brutally waged, all or nothing, creative battles, professional artists learn something amateurs never do. They discover that the visions inside their minds that enthrall them at the outset of a new endeavor rarely come to pass in the way they think they will.
They learn that recognized success is not all strawberry sundaes and sunshine. It can morph into something altogether different when realized. When a work requires that a writer cold turkey out of the PhD program at the University of Heineken, a National Book Award can prove disturbingly unsatisfying.
I quit drinking and bled out a book just to be honored at a gin soaked awards ceremony by people I’ve never met nor have ever cared to meet? Really, that’s the big payoff?
For the entrepreneur, the dream start-up venture can turn out to be a monotonous series of 80 hour work weeks that leave no time to enjoy the moolah pouring into the bank account. For the painter, a sold out show at Larry Gagosian’s gallery only reminds her of the empty canvasses lying in wait back at the studio.
No wonder fear of success cuts us off at the knees five feet from the finish line. If that’s success, why bother?
The only thing more bone chilling than succeeding is failing…the fear of the Big F keeps us from even beginning to attempt to move a thing in our brain into the real world.
But pros know that just as success doesn’t bring transcendental ethereal bliss, failure ain’t the end of the road either.
A publicly recognized failure often shape shifts into something clean, true and self-validating. Not while you are experiencing it of course…later when you’re waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles without a cell phone, thinking about some impossible situation you’ve gotten yourself into, running through the old internal emotional ledgers.
I got through that Hell, no reason why I can’t get through the shit coming at me now…
The pro relaxes. He knows that to create something meaningful—a painting, a story, a perfect wooden box, a partnership, a 92 yard touchdown pass, anything—is to fail. Again and again and again. He gets so used to it that without it, he feels like he’s cheating.
This is why pros are impossible to compliment. You can sense their inner wince when they hear, “loved…loved…loved your One Act! It was worthy of Becket!” It’s not because they aren’t proud of the work they’ve created, it’s that they’re playing back the series of escalating failures that led them to the final printed draft.
So while they are unconvincingly thanking you for your kindness, inside they’re thinking…
Remember when you made an ass out of yourself at that dinner party… that humiliation gave you the despair necessary to crank out that monologue in the third scene…of course it worked on the page, it nearly killed you living it!
Failure is painful, but the pro knows she can’t bury her blunders in her subconscious. She has to keep them retrievable, re-live-able in her own mind, or she’ll have nothing to say in her art. If she won’t accept failure as the currency of creation, she won’t be able to reach people.
Communicating with people through her work is why she’s an artist in the first place…to find universality in nano-specificity …to let them know that they aren’t alone in their torments or joys. To add something to the collective unconscious.
Without the specificity of her own experience at her fingertips, she’d just end up copying someone else’s work, generically, soullessly… She’d be an amateur, a hack running away from the risk of failure, stealing other people’s structural concepts without adding anything to the form…writing a Vampire romance because that’s what’s hot not because the form suits her very specific controlling idea of her art.
For the pro, critical or commercial “success” is not the endgame. Pushing the boundaries of human experience is.
There’s a great scene in the movie Tootsie about this. Bill Murray plays Tootsie’s (Dustin Hoffman) roommate Jeff, a writer working on a play called Return to Love Canal. He’s deep into his cups at a birthday party, holding court as only a solipsistic but charismatic artist can get away with.
“I want a theater that’s only open when it rains…I don’t want people to come up to me after a show and say ‘Hey I really dug your play man’ I want them to say ‘Hey, I saw your play…what happened?”
I just checked the screenplay for Tootsie by the brilliant Larry Gelbart, and this bit’s not in there. Murray must have improvised it. But I can assure you, it wasn’t a one shot, effortless improv. I bet it took him take after take to get it right. I bet it drove everyone else crazy while he did it.
Then he nailed the six second bit so perfectly that they all recognized the pretentious assholes they’ve contended with in their own real lives. “Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing Uncle Roy would say…”
It’s probably hard to believe, but Bill Murray knows failure. In fact he runs straight into opportunities to fail. When he became a cast member on Saturday Night Live, he floundered in every skit he got into. He was so leaden and unremarkable that he asked Lorne Michaels if he could have a minute or two of airtime to apologize to the viewing public personally.
It became the I don’t think I’m making it on the show bit that revealed the patented Bill Murray genius. Failure as art. Check it out.
What’s telling about the piece for me is that everything Bill says is true. His father did die when he was seventeen. He is one of nine children. He is from Wilmette, IL. His sister is a nun. His mother was supporting his entire family.
The speech is laser specific to Bill. He didn’t make shit up. He told the truth and painful reality of his own life and somehow he made the horror of blowing the chance of his career hilarious. But more importantly, he made it universal.
We all feel like we’re not making it. Isn’t that funny!
What Bill knew then and still knows now is that failure is nothing to be ashamed of. Embrace it and you’ll take away most of its power. Not enough to stop dry mouth or butterflies in your stomach, but enough to create something of real value.