How to Fail for a Month, Year, or Decade and Be Okay
by Christina Fitzpatrick
I’ve been a published fiction writer for the past 12 years and haven’t published a new book in 10 of those, which is not to say I haven’t written more material, it’s just that everything I write is consistently, unanimously rejected. I don’t normally advertise this information, but it’s routinely extracted from me. In bars, at dinner parties, even minding my own business on airplanes or among close friends — everyone wants to give me advice. Maybe you should become a schoolteacher? A paralegal? How about a nurse? A nurse in a psych ward?
Because advice-giving can be contagious — once you get some, you really want to give some — I find myself making mental lists for my fellow Failures. I mean, how do you survive this constant kick and punch? “Would ‘Leave me the fuck alone!’ be a good response?” you ask.
Certainly. But who wants to be the ill-behaved, warlike Failure? Better to be the self-possessed, stately Failure, no?
In any case, here are some basic thoughts to get you through:
RULE 1: NO MATTER WHAT YOUR SITUATION, BELIEVE THAT YOU WILL BE FAILURE FOR ONLY A FEW MORE DAYS.
Yes, a few more days. Even if last year you thought your Failure term was over, for very strong reasons, and then strangely, inexplicably, you remained in office, you must try to con yourself into believing “only a few more days now.” That, of course, doesn’t mean you state this claim to other people, ever. This is for you and only you.
How exactly do you trick your mind into thinking this? By continuously working, certainly. But also by continuously seeking out opportunities, even harebrained long shots, that on a given day, with a given weather pattern, make you feel immensely alive and hopeful.
(Much like the sensation of falling in love, if the aforementioned feeling could be bottled and sold, a whole legion of addicts would emerge, one of whom would surely be that drone who questioned your sanity at the dinner party. She’d gouge her own eyes out just to get it, if she’d ever tasted it, which of course she has not.)
RULE 2: LEARN SOMETHING ELSE.
I don’t mean enroll in a PhD program or a nursing school or an air conditioning repair course. My advice is mainly to focus on something that’s interesting or intimidating, something that seems worthwhile but doesn’t make you drift off course. Why? Because learning makes you feel confident, it shows you that nothing can be learned without a mistake, and you’ll never advance faster in a given subject than when you know nothing about it in the first place.
Your Failure status contains certain luxuries in this arena as well. The bar is low, if not invisible. If you’d already won an Oscar, you’d feel even more uncomfortable initiating that class at the Groundlings. It would be … beneath you?
Not so, when you’re already an underling. So explore.
RULE 3: VOLUNTEER.
Nobody likes this one. They think it’s mumbo jumbo. “How can I worry about strangers when I’m really worried about myself?”
Regardless, your sorry ass needs to know that a person living in the Third World would never watch your biopic and think, wow, the turmoil. They would think: Wow, look at this spoiled jackass drinking a martini, complaining to her friends, and then hailing a limousine (cab) to take her home to her personal warehouse where she’ll stay up all night perusing her hand-held computer for a new pair of jeans. And, goddamn it, where are her kids?
“Yeah, okay,” you say, “but how do I volunteer in the Third World when I live in L.A.?”
Personally I think these two places share much in common, but the main point is that you need to have some kind of experience with problems that are larger than getting a better commercial agent or a new lead singer. It’s certainly fun to wallow in how sad your life is compared to the crowd at Cipriani’s, but honestly their piece of the pie chart is a scatter of crumbs. It’s even arguable that volunteering might also give you some loftier fantasies for what you’re going to do, and who you want to help, when you finally succeed. In a few more days.
RULE 4: SEEK OUT IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION.
This might be just for writers, entrepreneurs, and other desk-sitters, as those of you who are musicians, actors, and comedians go out into the world regularly and show your lovely legs.
I must admit that writing, in particular, is a pretty sad-sack art. Most of the work is done in a secluded room and most of it stays in a secluded room. I’ve even met people who seem to suspect that I don’t write at all — it’s just a fake thing I say I do, or a thing I used to do long ago. Part of me doesn’t blame them. I don’t have a painting I can show them, a photo I can email them, a commercial they can YouTube. And even if those people did see what I was up to and praised it, I’d be bored. Immediate gratification isn’t exactly about other people. It’s about proving it to yourself, that you’re in it to win it, and that you can win it. Showing your talent to the world, or some baby microcosm of it, matters. If that means teaching your talent, even if it offers the worst conditions, the most broken down classrooms, the moodiest of audiences, some of whom might be criminals or sociopaths, do it. You’ll feel amazing.
RULE 5: DON’T LET ANY KIND OF RELATIONSHIP EAT YOUR TIME.
This includes friendships, too. Personally, I have something dirty and survivalist in me, so I’m pretty good with this. (Although I feel guilty for all eternity afterward, but that’s a side issue.) Self-loathing is a byproduct of regret, and Failure naturally contains a healthy dose of self-questioning. No matter how pliable your work hours are, no one who truly cares about you should interfere with them. And if they do, you will be the only one to pay for it.
RULE 6: AVOID SHITTY PEOPLE.
What kind of shitty people? The ones that say, “So are you still writing? Acting? Competitive eating?” The ones who say it with an intonation of incredulity, the ones who treat anything you’ve ever achieved as something distant, small, or lackluster. The ones who mention someone else who’s doing everything you do better at a younger age with more money to show for it. This person is shitty — far, far shittier than the dude who stole your purse or ransacked your bank account or forgot to tell you he was cheating on you. You wouldn’t hang out with the purse thief or the identity thief or the heart thief, so why are you hanging out with the good-vibes thief?
Avoid him. Keep your prized feelings in a safe. Lock your windows and doors. If he still appears, through an air vent or forgotten crawl space, inform him that you are feeling murderous. And be compelling.
RULE 7: GET HIGH.
So I wouldn’t include this if I were talking to a youth group, but we’re adults, and a passing wave of bad behavior is frankly a Failure’s friend. No matter how stalwart your spirit, it’s unlikely that you’ll keep your shit together all the time. Something will trip you up and no amount of yoga, meditation, or specially spaced out breathing will help.
“Getting High” in this sense does not necessarily involve inhalants or a pipe. It means shopping for clothes you can’t afford on your credit card. (I said it was bad behavior.) It means going somewhere with someone you’re not so sure is a good idea. It means getting drunk, losing your shoe, shattering your phone, or waking up with a younger man, an older man, a girl, or in a pool of glitter. And some of you may tragically believe that no one wants to sleep with a Failure, but I’m here to tell you that the Good-Vibes Thief would sleep with you in a heartbeat. So would the airplane passenger with oodles of advice and the naysayer at the dinner party. Failures are passionate and zesty. Failures have things to talk about. Failures aren’t so self-satisfied that they don’t try in bed, or elsewhere. They also look younger and more fresh-eyed than their counterparts because success restricts sleep.
Success actually restricts everything. You’ll have less time, less solitude, less exercise. Phones will ring, people will pester. So why not delight in the fleeting pleasure of Failure? After all, you only have a few more days.
Christina Fitzpatrick is the author of the novel ‘What’s the Girl Worth?’ and the short story collection ‘Where We Lived.’ She is the recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and is currently at work on a novel.