Without Failure There is No Beauty

“Doomed because it’s never good enough.”-David Hallberg, ballet dancer.DavidHallberg022110

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.

At the Library

When I need to clear my head, I go to the library.

When I sit in my office, my lost income presses down on me.  (See “You Weren’t Expecting to be Paid, Were You?“) I spin my wheels. I wonder if I will find a way to put out my next novel. I make t do lists about potential markets for my killed article and the non-fiction book proposal it was based on. I chide myself for not writing a real proposal on my more philosophical book and on not finding more markets for my proposed biography. I wonder if the play that I wrote (and at the moment most love) will ever be staged.  I become so focused on to do lists and action that I can’t move.

So I go to the library and I walk through the stacks picking up random books that catch my eye.  Sometimes I only need one line.

Today a dollar bill that someone had been using as a bookmark fell out of C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves.

And I read this sentence on the inner jacket of The Wheel of Life by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: “It is very important that you do only what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, and you may live in a shabby place, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days, you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.”

Money’s Invisible Influence: The Cases of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

There is something strange about money.  The need for it is one of the main drivers in most people’s lives.  With the exception of the incredibly wealthy, a very small minority, people need to do things in order to make a living.  During their lifetimes most working artists struggle constantly to keep money coming in. Yet when we look at the works of artists of the past, money and marketplace concerns tend to fade from the picture.

This is why I enjoyed reading Guy and Small’s Oscar Wilde’s Profession which presented him as a working writer.

“Wilde never formed a permanent association with any theatre or company,” the authors wrote.  “His basic problem, at least during the early part of his career, was that his books did not sell particularly well, and that successive publishers were understandably unwilling to continue to invest in an unsuccessful author. His problems with the theater were more basic: he found plays difficult to write, and some of the refusals he experienced were caused by his constitutional inability to meet contractual deadlines… Moreover, there is evidence that he was happy to tailor publications to the requirements of particular markets; Wilde was remarkably willing to take account of ‘public opinion,’ even if he was not always successful in pleasing it… Most importantly, we confirm the suspicions of some critics and theatre historians that Wilde’s career was substantially shaped by the hands of other professionals, from theatre managers, book designers and publishers to the new phenomenon of the literary agent.”

Although Wilde’s output was shaped by the need to make a living, when readers, biographers and scholars talk about his work, they discuss it as if he was entirely in charge of his literary destiny.  He expressed what he wanted to as a writer and a thinker.  The truth is more complex.  He expressed what he wanted to and was able to as a writer within the context of what was possible in his world both culturally and financially.

Now let’s consider his younger friend Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a common perception that the tragedy of Douglas’s life was that he cheated the world out of his poetry because he became so obsessed with setting the record straight about his relationship with Oscar Wilde. Lord Alfred Douglas wrote four autobiographical works, all of which focused to one degree or another on his ill-fated relationship with the playwright.

Even Douglas’s published correspondence with George Bernard Shaw has an undercurrent of Wilde, but this is partly because they were working on revising an Oscar Wilde biography during the correspondence. All of this creates an impression, especially so many years later, that Douglas never focused on anything else.

Indeed, he did spend a great deal of energy fighting what he saw as misconceptions about this formative experience, and he might have been able to put that energy to better literary use. But the sense that Douglas had no life outside the memory of Wilde is created, in part, by our own focus as an audience.

Douglas didn’t need an insane obsession to inspire him to write about Wilde. He wrote four books that dealt with his relationship with Oscar Wilde for a straightforward reason– it was what the public wanted to hear from him and what he could sell. He was a lord without money. He needed to make a living. These books got more attention than the others he wrote, celebrity memoir always sells better than sonnets.

Although we may encounter them all at once, the various books Douglas wrote about the relationship with Wilde spanned a thirty year period. The first was written when he was in his early forties. The last when he was 70 years old. Over time the poetry faded away, as most poetry does, but the juicy gossip still interests readers.

In his lifetime, Douglas published more than a dozen collections of poetry, satire and nonsense verse and The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. When his writings for publications such as The Academy are counted, he was by any fair reckoning quite prolific.

Oscar Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” in an attempt to get some fast cash to fund his expensive habits and to give him enough leisure to produce a serious, edgy work that he thought was more artistic.  (It was never finished.)

Lord Alfred Douglas thought he would be remembered to future generations for his poetry long after the scandals of his life were forgotten.

The Joys of Failure

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”-Robert Browning

Writers are constantly failing. By this I don’t mean that writers must face rejection on a regular basis, although we do. I don’t mean that it is hard to get published and hard to sell your books when you do, although this is true. What I mean is that writers never quite manage to create the work they believe themselves capable of creating. The story is never as fully or beautifully formed as it is in some deep part of the imagination.

You reach for the perfect synthesis of language and idea, the ideal way to invoke a story with these symbols on paper or screens. Sometimes you get tantalizngly close. You write something and the process is complete flow, you lose yourself. When you go back to edit and revise, you’re surprised to find that it speaks to you almost as much as it did as you were getting the words down. You know that you have given all you can give and written the best that you were capable of at that time. Yet there is always a nagging sense that it could have been better, that your best was not what you wanted it to be. A famous writer once said that novels are never finished, they are simply abandoned. You could keep revising forever. At some point you have to make the choice that it is done even though you know that there is more in you if you can only find it, if you can capture that flash of inspiration and have the skills to do it justice.

We writers don’t compare ourselves to average people. We compare ourselves to the people we read– to Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde or Dostoyevsky. When you make comparisons like that you’re bound to feel like a failure. That’s not a bad thing. It is the sense of failure more than anything else that spurs the artist on. If you’re completely satisfied with what you’ve already done there is no reason to push for more.

This is a short film featuring the ballet dancer David Hallberg.

Although he does not use the word “failure” Hallberg describes what I am talking about: the inspiration that comes from not achieving the ideal.

“…That’s what keeps me motivated as a dancer,” he says. “It attracts me to this art form. There is this level that you will never attain but you so desperately reach for. No other art form does that in the way ballet does.”

(That sentence sounds much more poetic, I now realize, when it is combined with the visual of his movement.)

Ballet has its own way of reaching for perfection and falling short, but every artist, within the bounds of his own form, aspires to attain a level that is always just beyond his grasp– the impossible dream, the unreachable star. When the muse whispers in your ear, she says, “Good try, but you failed. You can do better.”

When you experience that flash of lightning and you write something that you know has stretched your ability as a writer, when readers respond to it, it makes the years of work, the rejection and everything else that comes with this career worth it. That feeling lasts only for a moment because right away you begin to wonder, “Was that a fluke? Can I do that again? Can I do better? Is there more in me? How do I get back to that place, that moment, when it all flowed and my training kicked in and the book seemed to write itself?”

“It haunts me,” Hallberg says of such moments. It is haunting indeed.

David Hallberg, Random Penguins and Things that Give Me Hope as a Writer

Writing has always been a solitary profession. There is nothing new about that. With notable social exceptions like the Algonquin Round Table and the circle of poets surrounding Oscar Wilde, writers, unlike actors, have generally been a solitary lot.

Even so, these can be particularly lonely times for writers. The publishing world seems destined to condense into one giant corporation called Random Disney Harper Penguin House. The “Big Five” devote their advance money and marketing savvy to authors sure to generate a great ROI. Justin Beiber is a New York Times best seller meanwhile midlist authors find it harder to build a career.

Not only is it harder to get a less obviously commercial work traditionally published it is harder to make money in the ebook era if you do. That is, unless you’ve written 50 Shades of Gray, which is apparently now the best selling book of all time in England.

Self-publishing, in spite of all of the hype, is not yet a substitute for the traditional publisher. The average indie book sells less than 100 copies and most of the authors– a few outliers aside– end up spending more than they take in. The rules are all changing and no path is clear.

As an intelligent person, any writer given these facts has to say, “This is not a career. It’s too hard. I should give this up and do something practical.” This is perfectly reasonable and wise. If you’re blessed or cursed with a writing calling, however, you will only manage to remain wise and reasonable for a few moments before falling into a complete existential crisis. At which point you must admit that not being a writer is simply not going to be an option, and therefore, you need to find little things to keep you sane as you slog on.

Lately ballet dancer David Hallberg has been keeping me (relatively) sane. In case you have not heard the name, David Hallberg is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater and the first American to be invited to dance as a principal with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet.

Watching ballet, in any event, is a great palate cleanser for a writer. It is the non-verbal anti-novel– the part of the human experience that words on paper can’t express. (If you could capture Swan Lake with text there would be no reason for it to exist.) I firmly believe human life is large enough that it needs every form of art to give it full expression. No one form alone is capable of it.

I happen to be just quixotic enough to have tried to fund my writing career with a ballet career. Or maybe I try to fund the ballet with the writing. Either way, it’s nuts. When I say “ballet career” I should make it clear I am not a dancer. I suspect that people might be willing to pay me not to dance. I am a ballet manager/organizer. I spend half the year on the road with Russian ballet dancer Valery Lantratov conducting a geographically broad educational program which I put together with a view to eventually producing performance tours. Seeped in the world of Russian ballet as I have been for the past decade, I felt a swell of American ballet patriotism watching Hallberg join the Russians on their home turf. (It happens all the time the other way around.)

In the clip above from PBS Newshour, Hallberg talks about some of the challenges of a professional ballet career. In particular, he talks about the bullying male dancers often endure when they start to hit the teen years and how it never crossed his mind that dance was the thing he should give up. Stubborn writers should be able to relate to this.

The clip also talks about Russia’s ballet culture. The other day as my Russian counterpart and I drove across the vast expanse of South Dakota where Hallberg was born, I got to thinking about how different it must be to pursue a dance career in the United States than in Russia where ballet stars are regularly featured on television, where there are schools with historic ties to top theaters that serve as training grounds. If you’re a Russian kid with a bit of innate talent, you know where to go. There is cultural and government funding and support for the classical arts on a scale that simply doesn’t exist here. The Russians are fortunate in this.

As a writer looking at the publishing options available today there is no clear path. But there is no clear path from South Dakota to the Bolshoi Ballet either. Today Hallberg was the spark giving me that nudge to keep doing the literary equivalent of my barre exercises.

Nature and Created Beauty: Quote of the Day

Image“There are no forms in nature. Nature is a vast, chaotic collection of shapes.  You as an artist create configurations out of chaos. You make a formal statement where there was none to begin with. All art is a combination of an external event and an internal event… I make a photograph to give you the equivalent of what I felt. Equivalent is still the best word.”-Ansel Adams

Write What You Wonder

I am republishing here a post that I originally wrote for the blog Book After Book.  I appeared back in November 2011.

Write what you know. As aspiring writers we had this drummed into our heads. Write what you know.

I took this advice literally when I sat down to write my thankfully unpublished first novel. It was the story of a person like me (an introverted, slightly intellectual, average looking suburbanite), in a situation like mine, whining about the things that were bugging a person just like me and arguing that the reader should take her side. It was dreadful stuff and I thank God every day that I could not find a publisher for it and that print-on-demand and Kindle did not yet exist. I would never have lived it down.

Plumbing my own life for interesting narratives never yielded much. That is not to say I did not try. Oh I tried. I tried. I tried to make a novel out of a painful, but in retrospect silly, one-sided love affair. I started one on my dabblings with Eastern religion. I tried to turn my professional radio experience into a humorous novel. I tried to write about what it felt like to be in a legal battle with a Russian ballet company over producing a tour of Swan Lake. Yes, I really did have this experience in my life. On the surface it seems as though it has all of the elements for a great drama, exotic foreign characters, legal wranglings, an inside look at the world of ballet, high stakes and hard emotions. Yet I never could really get it off the ground. I was too close to it.

Here is the problem with writing “what you know.” You are limited. You know what happened in life, and you stick to it. Your imagination has no room to play. Your personal relationships and your desire to see yourself in the best light color your story telling. You also feel the drama so keenly that you tend to assume readers will also, so you forget to actually spell the emotions out. You think they’re there because just mentioning the situation may make your emotions soar or drop, but that doesn’t mean a reader will feel the same.

There is a personal danger in writing what you know as well. To grow as a human being, you need to move on from your past. Rehashing the drama of your past instead of living your life in the moment is not the healthiest thing for the writer as a person. Contrary to the suffering artist mystique – I’m going to bust all the myths today – you really do better work when you are healthy.

I never quite succeeded in producing a novel until I stopped trying to write about what I knew, and started to write about what I wondered.

It began in 2000 when I took a bus tour of the beautiful Mount Rainier in the state of Washington. My tour guide was an entertaining middle aged man who described the mountain in poetic terms and kept talking about burning out on his old job. Towards the end of the tour someone finally asked him what his old job had been. He said, “a minister.”

What would cause a burned out minister to leave the church for a job as a tour guide? Was there something that connected religion and natural beauty that appealed to him? Why had he left the ministry? Was his new setting a form of worship? What about the fact that the mountain was actually a sleeping volcano waiting for its next eruption? How could a story about a minister leaving the ministry be related to that?

There were so many questions that my mind could not help coming back to. “Why did the minister go to the mountain?” was a writing prompt that never failed to get me going, thinking, exploring. I used it for ten years. That prompt produced another complete novel (as yet unpublished) that spun off in a surprising direction. (The final version has no minister or mountain.) And eventually it produced Angel.

The answer to the question of what metaphorical volcano shook the minister’s comfortable church life finally came in the form of a man whose beauty captured my imagination. His face reminded me of the angels in Renaissance art, and I wished I could paint. This, too, ignited my curiosity.

What was it about beauty that called out to our creative urges? Was it a desire to capture something that we know is transitory? Is there a spiritual element to the appreciation of beauty or is it mere objectification? What exactly is it that is pleasing about a beautiful face?

Suddenly my two curiosities collided and created a third question: What if the minister fell in love with a beautiful man? What if that was the thing?

From that point I wrote in flow as though the characters– the minister and the beautiful young man– had independent existence and I simply had to take dictation. My novel, Angel, was released by Itineris Press on September 27 and has been getting over all favorable reviews. My life is in it, of course, but there is nothing autobiographical about it.

Write what you know, yes, if by that you mean ground your story in reality. Draw on your experience and your life and make it all truthful and real. But if you want to be inspired, write what you wonder. Write about what piques your curiosity. Keep exploring the questions you can’t let go.

More Goofing Off and Daydreaming: More Creative Thinking

“This can be one of the trickiest parts of being a writer, this need to fool around to be creative, and to be okay with that.” From her book A Year of Writing Dangerously.

In his post In Praise of Goofing Off, psychologist Dennis Palumbo notes, “Some people call it puttering, or screwing around, or just plain goofing off. Others, of a more kindly bent, call it day-dreaming. Kurt Vonnegut used the quaint old term ‘skylarking.’


“What I’m referring to, of course, is that well-known, rarely discussed but absolutely essential component of a successful creative person’s life — the down-time, when you’re seemingly not doing anything of consequence. Certainly not doing anything that pertains to that deadline you’re facing: the pitch meeting set for next week, the screenplay you’ve been toiling over, the important audition that’s pending.”

More Goofing Off and Daydreaming: More Creative Thinking