Hi, My Name Is Amber Sparks and I Am a Failure
From time to time, someone will tell me that everything seems to come so easily for me. And whenever that happens, I’m tremendously taken aback. Because I’m not a person to whom things come easily—the opposite, in fact. I can hardly think of a single thing (worth having) that’s come to me without a serious and often lengthy struggle.
So why the perception that I’m lucky or good or maybe both? I can’t think of another reason why except that, like my Protestant Midwestern forebears, I do not discuss my failures publicly. Confession is for other people. But maybe that’s exactly the problem? Social media teaches us to broadcast our good news, not our bad news. We put our best digital faces forward and “warts and all” need not apply. Maybe we need a new confessional for the 21st century? No one likes a whiner but surely there’s a place for the failures as well as the successes.
Failure, I feel, is more important than success in shaping who we are and who we mean to be. Failure is often the ultimate catalyst for creativity, the fire under our asses that spurs us to bigger, bolder things. I don’t mean that in some vague motivational poster kind of way, but in the way that Samuel Beckett meant it when he said “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” There are small successes along the way to improving our art and our selves, but neither can be perfect and we are perpetual failures. If success was an endpoint we would all be doomed to stagnate, to harden and plasticize and be more preserved than people should be. I’d rather be a sort of prolapse, fall out of place and have to put myself back in or better yet, find a new place for my talents and time. Failure is pain, like all catalysts, but provides the important freedom from fear if we do it right. In his book, The Art of Recklessness, Dean Young writes:
Yes, it takes courage even to leave the house if you know you could fall…fall from the cliff of stability but the alternative is to be a permanent shut-in, sipping a weaker and weaker broth.
Everyone can think of those artists who used to be sublime, but to whom it’s been far too long since anyone said ‘no’ or ‘not good enough’ and now they coast along on remembered triumphs and weak broth fiction or poetry or painting instead. It takes continued failure, continued cliff-clinging, to prolong the (futile but attempted) perfecting in art. It is far too tempting for some when they’ve reached a comfortable place to string a hammock up and take a nice long artistic snooze. Sometimes they’ve earned it! But sometimes they never wake up.
Failure is necessary because it causes us to question what we’re doing—it’s the alarm clock that kicks us out of bed. As Will Self puts it:
When anyone starts out to do something creative – especially if it seems a little unusual – they seek approval, often from those least inclined to give it. But a creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism – you learn this as you go on.
So I think a discussion of our failures in order, and on the regular. We have so many beautiful successes by beautiful failures: Einstein, Van Gogh, Darwin, Melville, Monet, Newton, Dickinson, Poitier, Elvis—the history of innovation, of artistic endeavor and the seeking of knowledge is probably full of more failure than success because you have to be willing to do that cliff dive over and over again.
My own failures? They are too numerous to list here, but I’ll start the discussion with a few important ones:
I couldn’t get into a single MFA program I applied to.
I failed to become a successful actor.
I failed to become a successful musician.
I failed Geology 101 twice.
I quit writing for five years and didn’t think I’d ever come back to it.
I spent many years trying, and failing, to get a job in my field (then, any kind of professional job) before finally returning to school for a Master’s and even then I had to take an internship and work my way up.
I failed to become a poet, which is what I always intended to be.
My first publication came just shy of my thirtieth birthday.
My first two novels were failures.
I never was able to get into most of the literary magazines I submitted to.
My first short story collection was rejected twenty-three times, by just about every small and medium size press out there.
Because I was no longer an actor or musician, and missed art in my life, I started writing again.
Because I couldn’t get a job, I pushed myself to go back to school and when all I could get was an internship, I had to work eight times as hard to show I was capable of more.
Because I couldn’t get into an MFA program, I changed course and found an incredibly fulfilling career in social justice.
Because I couldn’t get published as a poet, I started writing stories instead.
Because I didn’t get into literary magazines, I was determined to publish a book so my stories would have a home.
Because my short story collection was rejected, it ended up finding the perfect home in the end at Curbside Splendor.
And so on, and so on. Failure made me work for it. It made me happy with less and hungry for more. It made me grateful for each success and more determined with each new failure.
It gave me something to prove to all the other motherfuckers. It lit that fire.
Everyone comes to failure at some point, and I suppose when is less important than what you do with it. I do think that if whatever limited success I’ve had had come to me in my early twenties, it would have been a disaster. It’s still so hard to know, when you’re young, what your art can be and what you’re capable of. Some people have incredible self-possession and insight at that age, but I definitely did not. If someone had come along and told me I was a genius at twenty-two, I wonder if the creative spark in me might have sputtered, might have flickered and flamed out. I was too sure of what I knew back then.
So I’m glad my failures came early and my doubts made me different. A creative life must be sustained by doubt, I think. It must be the constant reevaluation of what we’re doing and the zigs and zags we take to attempt to change course and muddle through. It must be, I think, the constant dissatisfaction, the desire to make better failures. As Young says, “If there is divinity in us, it is in the process of allowing ourselves to unmake and remake ourselves.”
What about you? Where are your failures and what have they made out of you?