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The Success of Failure
2004-10-22 14:07
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.

Mulling over the end the 2004 season got me thinking about failure as a motivating element in our lives. Particularly as it applies to the creative process. Allow me to indugle myself here. First of all, do yourselves a favor and check out two first-rate articles on the Yankees: "Mythbusters" by Larry Manhken, and the latest installment of The Pinstriped Bible by Steven Goldman (oh, and look at David Pinto's defense of Alex Rodriguez while you are at it too).

How can we view failure in a positive light? In an interview with Mike Shannon (from the book "Baseball: The Writer's Game"), Pat Jordan explained:


I recently wrote a piece on failure for a magazine called Men’s Fitness. They wanted me to write a piece on success. They said, “Well, you’ve been a successful baseball player”…these were people who obviously didn’t know much about my career…”and now you’re a successful writer; write a piece on how to motivate yourself for success in whatever you do, etc., etc.” But I ended up writing about failure instead. I told them, “I’ve made a whole career out of failure. I failed in baseball and made a career in writing through that, and everytime I write a piece I fail because it’s never as good as I want it to be and that makes me write another one. So I owe my whole life to failure.”

Jordan isn't alone. The great William Faulker regarded perhaps his finest book, The Sound and the Fury, as a noble failure. In an interview with Jean Stein which originally appeared in the Paris Review, Faulker elaborated:


Faulkner: Since none of my work has met my own standards, I must judge it on the basis of that one which caused me the most grief and anguish, as the mother loves the child who became the thief or murderer more than the one who became the priest.

Interviewer: What work is that?

Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury. I wrote is five separate times, trying to tell the story, to rid myself of the dream which would continue to anguish me until I did. It’s a tragedy of two lost women: Caddy and her daughter. Dilsey is one of my own favorite characters, because she is brave, courageous, generous, gentle and honest. She’s much more brave and honest and generous than me.

Interviewer: How did The Sound and the Fury begin?

Faulkner: It began with a mental picture. I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book. And then I realized the symbolism of the soiled pants, and that image was replaced by the one of the fatherless and motherless girl [Caddy’s daughter] climbing down the rainpipe to escape from the only home she had, where she had never been offered love or affection or understanding.

I had already begun to tell the story through the eyes of the idiot child, since I felt that it would be more effective as told by someone capable only of knowing what happened, but not why. I saw that I had not told the story that time. I tried to tell it again, the same story through the eyes of another brother. That was still not it. I told it for a third time through the eyes of the third brother. That was still not it. I tried to gather the pieces together and fill in the gaps by making myself the spokesman. It was still not complete, not until fifteen years after the book was published, when I wrote as an appendix to another book [The Viking Portable Faulkner] the final effort to get the story told and off my mind, so that I myself could have some peace from it. It’s the book I feel tenderest towards. I couldn’t leave it alone, and I never could tell it right, though I tried hard and would like to try again, though I’d probably fail again.

Wow. One of the great books in modern literature and its creator considered it a failure. Furthermore, Faulkner looked at failure as a virtue. Consider his feelings about Ernest Hemmingway given in an 1955 interview:


I thought that he found out early what he could do and stayed inside of that. He never did try to get outside the boundary of what he really could do and risk failure. He did what he did really could do marvelously well, first rate, but to me that is not success but failure…failure to me is the best. To try something you can’t do, because it’s too much (to hope for0, but still to try it and fail, then try it again. That to me is success.

How does this relate to the Yankees? I'm not certain, other than we Yankee fans are dealing with failure this morning. But that's what baseball is all about, right? Failing most of the time. Accepting it and moving on. Just ask every other team in the league with the exception of the Sox and the Cardinals. The season may have endeded poorly for the Yanks, but as a whole, I wouldn't characterize it as just a failure. As Goldman points out in his article, there was a lot to be appreciate about the Yanks this year. Hopefully, the team can learn from their failures, lick their wounds and then try again next year. The point isn't that they failed, it's that they pick themselves up, determined to try again. That's all we can ask from ourselves and that's all we can ask from them.
Finally, here is one last gem from Faulkner. It is from a letter he wrote to Malcom Cowley. I've found it meaningful and inspirational for a long time.


As regards to any specific book, I’m trying primarily to tell a story, in the most effective way I can think of, the most moving, the most exhaustive. But I think even that is incidental to what I am trying to do…I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world. Tom Wolfe was trying to say everything, the world plus “I” or filderted through “I” or the effort of “I” to embrace the world in which he was born and walked a little while and then lay down again, into one volume. I am trying to go a step further. This I think accounts for what people call the obscurity, the involved formless “style,” endless sentences. I’m trying to say it all in one sentence, between one Cap and one period. I’m still trying to put it all, if possible, on one pinhead. I don’t know how to do it. All I know to do is to keep on trying in a new way. I’m inclined to think that my material, the South, is not very important to me. I just happen to know it, and don’t have time in one life to learn another one and write at the same time.

…Art is simpler than people think because there is so little to write about. All the moving things are eternal in man’s history and have been written before, and if a man writes hard enough, sincerely enough, humbly enough, and with the unalterable determination never never never to be quite satisfied with it, he will repeat them, because art like poverty takes care of its own, shares its bread.

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