Today I am failing to write a chapter in my new novel. My recent adventure in Washington D.C. was good for my soul but it has derailed the momentum I had on the writing. I have all of the pieces of the chapter already written and only need to string them together into a seamless text. I can’t write the first line. I have an otherwise blank word document staring at me with “[insert excellent opening line here]” at the top. Some days you can’t make it work. I am walking away for the moment.
Now that I am home, and have had some sleep, I am finally able to process what I heard at the Kennedy Center when David Hallberg came to speak about his life, work and the creative process. Part of my fascination with him has to do with what people might call either his perfectionism or his insecurity. Those are not quite the right words for it, although there are no doubt elements of both involved.
This fear and drive was something he talked about in the short film The Dancer, which I have written about here before. Ironically, because of his stunning success– not in spite of it– David Hallberg is in the perfect position to talk about failure. Failure fascinates me because I am always falling down.
I have come to believe that failure is more than something to overcome.
“Failures are unforgettable,” wrote the poet Philip Schultz.
When my companions and I talked about the conversation with David Hallberg (which you can watch here) one thing stood out to all of us. It was when one of the world’s most celebrated dancers said that he could count on one hand the number of performances that he had been truly pleased with. It was the disparity in the reactions the audience and the dancer had to a film of Hallberg at age 16. The audience members let out appreciative sighs over the amazing raw material and talent he had. When he looked at it, he saw his flaws and admitted that he still has a lot in common with that clumsy kid. “From the audience’s perspective you have amazing control, you know that,” the moderator had to reassure him.
It was the moment he talked about having to go in another room and lie on the floor to recover emotionally from a performance that he felt was beneath his standard.
“You can prepare so much for a show… then you go on stage and you’re not a robot, you’re human… You want to be a different dancer. I think every artist who questions everything wants to be different. And that’s the sort of double-edged sword. It keeps me going but it can also ruin you.”
“It haunts me,” he had said in the film The Dancer.
By chance, after I returned home from my journey to see this lecture, I was flipping through the book Zen and the Art of Making a Living by Laurence G. Boldt. I opened to page 32 and read this:
“Beauty is not an end in itself, but the by-product of making or doing things well. Beauty results from the aspiration to perfection. Yet it accepts and allows that natural imperfection which is human. Beauty is not found in mechanical correctness, but in human aspiration– in making and doing with love.”
If it is true that beauty is not found in correctness but aspiration then it can also be said that without failure there is no beauty.
Failure is not a bug, it is a feature.
Then is the artist doomed? If the theory holds, each artist is caught in an inescapable paradox. If he doesn’t stop reaching for that unreachable star, and believing that he can get there, he will not be in the position to create the beauty that comes from trying and falling short. It means he has to fall– and he can’t be satisfied with falling. The fall has to hurt.
Do you remember the Monty Python skit involving “getting hit on the head lessons”?
This leads to other lines of inquiry. Is the self-esteem culture (“I’m good enough, I’m strong enough and doggone it, people like me”) detrimental to arts? Could this be why we, as a nation, seem to have less interest in fine arts and culture with a big C than some others?
There is something that draws me to this question of arts and failure. I haven’t quite gotten to the center yet or managed to articulate it. I will keep trying. Forgive me for my failure.