Monday, February 16, 2015

Peter Grandbois on the essential art of failing

Ode to Failure
“Francia Russell, the director of the school, said to me, “You’re perfect for ‘Clara,’ because you are much more of an actress than a dancer.”
It was a condescending compliment. I couldn’t handle her honesty, but I did appreciate it. That’s why, at sixteen, when Francia Russell told me the most I could hope for as a ballet dancer was as a corps member in some Midwestern third-tier company, I decided to quit. My excuse was that I would act. But really something inside died. An ex-dancer knows what I mean. When I left ballet, I left my identity. None of my dance classmates phones. I had succumbed to failure.
— From Renee D’Aoust’s essay “Body of a Dancer"

We are the kings of catastrophe, the queens of ineptitude. Princes and princesses of disappointment. We pile the shattered bones of our missteps on the pyre of our imperfections. Our national anthem sings of soot-black air and beaten dogs. We pledge allegiance to distant shores we will never reach and storms that drag us away from any sight of land.

At the club where I fence in Columbus, there is a woman in her early fifties who recently started fencing because two of her three children wanted to fence. She took up sabre, the fastest weapon, a weapon with no room for error. She has been a regular at the club for the past two years, fencing two to three nights a week and going to nearly every tournament. She almost always loses. She is always beautiful.
       Beautiful in the way pages fluttering in the breeze are beautiful, in the way snow clinging to the railing outside the window is beautiful, in the way a bird unable to find a branch to land on is beautiful. I watch her and often wonder why she does it, fencing against kids a third her age, all of whom are faster, more agile. I know why I do it, but I, at least, have decades of fencing experience, muscle memory to rely on, even if those memories are twenty years old. She takes last place in tournament after tournament. And after, she smiles and talks of how next time she’ll do better.
       A gentleman at my club in his forties also took up fencing because his son wanted to do it. Fencing does not come easy. The movements are unnatural. It takes years of training for them to become normal, much less second nature. The old adage is that fencing takes one lifetime to learn the basics, another to master them. I watch this gentleman struggle through his footwork, his upper body bobbing back and forth like those clown faced punching bags. When he parries, it looks as if he is swatting at you. His attack appears more of a semi-controlled fall. He’s always smiling. He tells me he loves the sport and wants to become as good as he can.
       That’s it, isn’t it? To be as good as we can. That’s the best we can hope for as we get older. I fenced my first division one national championship in 1988 when I was twenty-four years old. I came in last place. I told myself it would never happen again. I was young. I could afford that luxury. It didn’t happen again. Over the next two years I worked my way from being one hundred and eighty first to placing somewhere in the fifties and sixties. A year after that, I made the top sixteen for the first time in my life. After that, many top eights or top fours. I had the time and the energy and the drive. When we’re older, we’re lucky to have one of those. Never all three. So we work hard and hope to be as good as we can. 

We, none of us, expected to fail. And yet we do. Every day. We fail despite our best efforts. We measure ourselves against that failure. Maybe this time we won’t lose quite as badly. Maybe this time we’ll have made our opponents work at least a little bit for their touches. Maybe this time we won't be quite so sore the next morning. Maybe we won’t have the usual aches and pains. Maybe we’ll be able to get out of bed. To walk down stairs. To sit. Without pain.

A flick attack in fencing involves cranking the arm and throwing the weapon forward with a whip so that the blade bends and the point hits the opponent’s back. It used to be my bread and butter. It takes a lot of arm strength. I remember the first time I tried flicking when I came back to fencing at forty-eight. I slapped my opponent across the shoulder. I apologized. I tried again, and apologized again. I couldn’t generate the torque required to bend the blade enough. No matter. Two years into my return to fencing and I have “Tennis Elbow.” It’s difficult enough to attack with a straight arm now, much less attempt a “flick.” If I did, the pain shooting up my arm would force me to drop my foil. In veteran’s fencing, practice doesn’t always lead to improvement. It often makes you worse. Wisdom is to know your limitations and work within them.
       Twenty years ago, I was famous for running my opponents down. My nickname was “the rhino.” When I first tried to fence with my old run and gun style, I nearly tripped and fell. My hip went out on me. My knees gave way. My body told me its limitations. I didn’t listen much the first year, but I’ve learned to listen since. My game is different than it was twenty years ago. For the first time in my fencing career, I use the clock. I take my time and instead of attacking, I offer false openings designed to draw my opponent out so I can capitalize on my hand, which thankfully remains quick. My legs are another matter. 

We drag our wings through dark, cloudless nights, the moon flailing our corpse. We open our mouths to song and hear nothing but a dry rasp. We lift our feet in dance but find them tied down by the low sound of distant bells. Time stops, and we fall backward, teetering on the edge of our regrets. We pull our coats tighter at the throat amidst the ash falling from our hair. We are the fathers of the big flop, the masters of miscarriage. We are the butchers of botchery, and the disciples of disaster. We court failure as if there were nothing else in the world we’d rather be doing.

I started and restarted this essay four times before I got it “right.” I still don’t know if I have it “right.” The curse of age is that you know enough to know you are wrong far more often than you are right. The old Japanese proverb: Fall down seven times. Stand up eight. To know, too, that no matter how much you work at it, no matter how much effort you put in, you may never get it “right.” It is also a blessing because at some point you free yourself to be as good as you can.
       When I wrote my first novel, I was a relatively young thirty-eight and oh so lucky. I didn’t know what I was doing. The fool’s blessing. I sat down every day at my computer and simply wrote. I completed the first draft in six months, then spent the next six months revising it. I probably put the novel through three drafts total. I sent the novel out to a round of publishers and the first email response I received was an acceptance. I didn’t know enough to know how rare it all was. My second novel took four and a half years to write. I have over forty different drafts saved on my computer. The novel was rejected forty-five times before it found a home. My third novel took five years to write, had a similar amount of drafts and after forty plus rejections is still looking for a home. Writing doesn’t get easier. When we write, we think we are “approaching truth,” but the older you get, the more you realize how elusive that “truth” is. Even if you find it, you understand how difficult it is to express. I remember the summer I began writing that third novel. I wrote to page sixty, then stopped, trashed it and started again. I repeated this process at least four or five times until I found the voice and the form necessary for the story I wanted, no needed, to tell. Even when I found the voice and form, writing wasn’t necessarily easier. I just knew what I had to do. But knowing and doing are sometimes as different as a boy and his father. Whether it gets published or not, I consider that novel my finest work, and my biggest failure.
       Several years ago at a library in Sacramento, while sitting on a panel and talking about writing, someone asked how I defined “success” as a writer. I’d never thought about it before and so wasn’t ready for the question, and was even less prepared for the answer. At the time, I only had two books out. The first had won many awards, been seriously reviewed, was under contract to be made into a movie, and had sold several thousand copies. The second had sold maybe four hundred copies. I told the audience that the second was a much bigger success to me, though it would probably be deemed a failure by every such metric we use in America. I told them there were two reasons why: the first was that even though many more people had read my first book, I’d received a few personal emails from people regarding my second book saying how it had changed their lives. In other words, I marked success not by how many readers I had but by how deeply a few readers received it. Finally, I was more pleased with the writing in my second book than in my first. In other words, I’d met my own standard in that book, not the standards of somebody else.

Lord deliver us from the ugly hands of “success.” Take us, instead, down the road of failure in the trunk of a dead car. We beseech you to protect us from paths with a pot of gold at the end, roads that appear too easy. Let us wake to the blank page each and every day and not be sure how to fill it. Let us enter our daily tournament knowing each and every person there can beat us. We ask that you pluck out our eyes so that our black sockets can roll back into heaven. Grant us scorched earth that our dying weeds might grow. Only then can we know strength. Only then can we understand character.

As in writing and fencing, the longer I live, the less I realize I understand. The more I realize how much of my life is defined by failure, how failure defines me. You can’t go through life without making mistakes, and I’ve made more than my share. A ruined first marriage. A nearly ruined second. I have failed to keep up with so many, many friends. Failed to listen to myself at key points in my life. And yet I would argue that these failures are not even the important ones. The ones we see clearly, the ones we remember right away, those shape us, but less so than we think. It’s the thousand little failures we ignore each day that really make us who we are, and nowhere is that more clear than in parenting.
       As a father with two teenage girls and a headstrong ten-year-old boy, I’ve almost completely given up. Children have no lack of compunction in letting you know when you’ve fallen short of the mark. The teen who reminds you of the promise you failed to keep or the conversation you failed to hear or the fact that you failed to understand her need for a break from piano practice or homework. The child who reminds you that you failed to see when he needed help or when he didn’t need help, when he wanted your love and when he didn’t. To give your teen a kiss or a hug when they don’t want it can sting worse than a bad book review. 
       But parenting is only one part of a very long day. I fail to play with my dogs enough. I fail to pay the bills on time, to keep the house clean, to maintain the yard and clean the garage, to keep up the deck and the exterior paint. I fail to prepare enough for the classes I teach and spend enough time on the papers I grade. I fail to get the cars in for a tune up or an oil change or a tire rotation or to check the battery. I fail to love my wife enough. I fail to sleep at night so I can be rested for my failure the next day. Failure to be as good as I can be
       And yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s not quite true. Rather, I know there is no other way. In fencing, I will always lose more bouts than I will win, at least if I’m pushing myself. In parenting, I know if my kids love me all the time, something is wrong. I haven’t done my job. I’ve tried too hard to be their friend. In writing, if my book is reviewed in the New York Times (Don’t worry, my books will never be reviewed in the New York Times), I know I’ve failed to express the deepest part of who I am, my vision of the world. For good or ill, our lives are measured by our mistakes. 

We are the rulers of ruin. We are the tyrants of tragedy. We court calamity at every turn. We wake to upheaval and work through confusion. Mayhem, havoc, pandemonium are our middle names. We live for discouragement. We pray to be washed up, washed out, let down and defeated. We settle for setback and know in our bones that we’ll spend far more time in the anticlimax than the climax. We are born thinking we are conquerors but we die knowing life is a rout. 

So why do I fence? Why return to a sport in which I have no hope of being as good as I once was, a sport where I’ll be reminded of my failures, my shortcomings every day? It is the great lesson of getting old: to accept that we are ninety percent failure in blood and bone, that we take last place more often than not, that we are all desperately trying to be as good as we can be. The body is the first to remind us when at thirty our backs start to go out from time to time and our arms aren’t quite as strong as they used to be. At forty, our legs don’t quite carry us with the same grace. By the time you reach fifty, if you don’t understand that you’ve failed at nearly everything, you’ve either got your head in the sand or you never set your bar high enough in the first place. Failure is necessary for growth.
       That lesson can be the hardest of our lives: to know that we live on a receding shoreline and that soon everything will abandon us. Grace lies in looking out from that shore, knowing no one will come, but standing there anyway. We live in an age of instant gratification. In all my years of coaching, I’ve seen hundreds of young students come to fencing thinking they want to be Aragorn or Luke Skywalker, then quitting a month later when they realize they can’t be instantly good at it. They lack the necessary character. As a professor, I get email after email from students trying to convince me I should let them into my classes: “I have a passion for the short story.” “I have a passion for poetry.” “A passion for words.” “A passion for writing.” They love the word passion, mistaking that for character. And yet, when I tell them to come on the first day and see if a spot opens up, none of them show. How quickly their passion fades when things are not certain, when life is not handed to them. Much of the fault lies in youth. Character is born from pain and sacrifice. Discipline and time. Above all, time. Age understands the way in which character is tindered in work, ignited by failure.
       Our culture celebrates winning above all else. We call our sports figures heroes, as if somehow they’ve sacrificed for us. Maybe they have. Maybe the ten thousand hours they sacrificed practicing, trying to get better, wasn’t really for them, but for us, so that we would have a model of perfection and grace. Maybe. But I’ll take the people who don’t make the six and seven figure salaries, the people who don’t make the news. I’ll take the woman who doesn’t win a bout but keeps getting up and donning her mask anyway. I’ll take the old man I used to fence with in Denver, who was always the first to arrive at the club and the last to leave. He was dying of cancer, and though his legs could barely move, he was the only one to never take a break. “Do you want to fence?” he would say with a smile. And how could you refuse. His hand was still quick. He knew what it meant to fence as good as you can. He lived it. And for a moment, when you fenced with him, you lived it, too. Despite youth. Despite the false promise of what lay ahead. You hoped that someday you would understand enough to make a parry riposte the way he could. Simple. Without thought to the past or the future. Without a worry about who you were or who you would become. 

We are the memory of winter. We are the dying bird sputtering over the ground. We are an open mouth without sound, an abandoned car at the bottom of a ravine. We are the last drops of rain to fill the muddy tracks. We are the long night when the rain doesn’t stop. We understand our lot. Still, we return again and again. And we won’t stop. Not ever.  

Peter Grandbois is the author of two novels, The Gravedigger and Nahoonkara, a memoir, The Arsenic Lobster, a collection of short fictions, Domestic Disturbances, and three novella collections or “monster double features”—Wait Your Turn, The Glob Who Girdled Granville, and The Girl on the Swing. His plays have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, and New York. He is an associate editor at Boulevard and fiction co-editor at Phantom Drift. He teaches at Denison University in Ohio.


  1. Somehow gives me added courage to continue to endure, to enjoy, to thrive and always to notice that the straight line is not what life is about. I feel richer for having read this. Thanks to my writing teacher!! Joy