The Mark Blog

The Sweet Stench of Failure

I’m fascinated by both success and failure. Success is nice; I’ve enjoyed the rare times I’ve achieved any level of it. But given the choice, failure is always more interesting to write about.

Who wants to read about someone who gets everything they want? Sure, maybe you go for happy endings, but a story generally only captures our attention if everything goes wrong along the way.

Every rewrite comes out of failure. The beginning’s not working: failure. Rewrite it. Now it works better. But the middle doesn’t match: failure. Rewrite it, etc. Writing is a series of failures until you finally get it right, or at least think you do. Then you send it out, and find out how many more times you can fail.

Clearly, every writer must face rejection hundreds, if not thousands, of times. To do this and not consider oneself a failure: that takes some major cajones or foolish confidence. In any case, if fragile egos can survive, failure is what can push good writers to become great ones and weaker ones to quit altogether. This isn’t a profession for wimps.

A lot of the stories I’m working on deal with some degree of failure. Generally, each character begins at a low point, things proceed to get lower, and eventually there’s some glimmer of hope. Some end on an up-beat note, others end ambiguously, and some have their hopes once again squashed by failure.

I think I’m partially fascinated by failure because I myself have had so much of it. All the clichés hold true though: you learn from your mistakes, no pain no gain, nothing ventured, a bird in the hole – actually I forgot what that last one even means, a golf reference?

The point is, failure proves you tried. And some of the times I’ve been most moved in my life have happened around my noble failures. Like this sweet old Jimmy Stewart-esque fellow who auditioned his comedy act for me, even though I was just working box office at the club. His act was so bad, so dated and unfunny, and yet he was so earnest and eager, it broke my heart. I literally had to go to the back room and cry after he left.

Many great comic actors have played some version of the loveable loser. Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis, Steve Martin, Ben Stiller, Steve Carrell– the list goes on and on. Their characters do everything wrong, and audiences love them all the more for it.

These kinds of characters find their way into literature as well. Dostoevsky and Kafka’s anti-heroes often fall into this category, as do Bukowski’s, Updike’s, and even Salinger’s. I might add the protagonist of Panorama City, by The Mark’s own Antoine Wilson to this esteemed list.

Interesting, though, the difference in the examples I’ve cited. In movies, the losers usually aren’t so bright, probably because in film physicality trumps words, and broad/slapstick humor can play. Whereas in books, which have more to do with language and complexity, the characters often shine with a certain kind of intelligence, even as their lives fall apart around them. It reminds me a bit of Marshall McLuhan; the medium is the message, or, in this case, the form dictates the content.

Is that a startling revelation? Or is it just plain obvious? Did I just fail at being profound? Oh well, hopefully I’ve learned from my mistake, and I’ll come up with a better ending next time. Now go and do something smart, like read a book!