On Failure as a Novelist
Re-posting a thing from my old Medium account
Someone shared a video on a Crossfit message board about ten years ago that I think about a lot. Yeah yeah yeah…Crossfit. I don’t want to exculpate myself of that particular shit truffle of body image cult/culture here, but I do acknowledge that bringing up Crossfit is very LOL, especially on Medium? The video shows a very lean and stringy, athletic, Weimar-gymnase uber-frau-type. In my memory of the video, she is in full 2000s Crossfit regalia: thick bikini-style spandex and running shoes developed to the high fidelity of her feet, probably Vibram toe shoes. Wraparound Oakley sunglasses. She’s in a race against other Teutonic women, on terrain resembling Mars.
Neither the video, nor the message board post, is about her strength. It is about her weakness. What I watch is a short clip capturing just the last hundred yards of the race. A race of the genre of madness or survival or martial law; where we get phrases like Boot Camp and Fight Gone Bad as opposed to the science of a triathlon. It’s the kind of foot race that will make its winner feel as defeated as they should feel victorious; like a failure.
The woman in the video literally runs out of energy so close to the finish line you cringe the entire time you watch (I can’t find the original video but by all means enjoy this one). She has nothing left in her body to propel her to the finish line but the breath in her lungs and the compulsory instincts of fascia. She collapses three body lengths from the finish line, and starts crawling. She refuses aid, she refuses to be disqualified. And in the final few yards of the race, her race, the woman starts rolling her body like an empty bottle in the subway, because centripetal force is all she has left after her hands and knees give up. Once the majority of her body has crossed the finish, she can finally relax. Someone rushes to her and pours water (or whatever liquid supplement we Crossfitters were into at the time) at her mouth. Someone else covers her with some kind of microfiber. She recovers her standing faculties and is led away on her own toe-shoed feet. She obviously didn’t win this race, and I don’t know if she ever redeems herself with a more graceful finish in later iterations of it. It doesn’t matter. Unlike ads for Gatorade or the science behind nutritional supplements, the video has no intention of teaching you how to avoid falling apart seconds to the end. The video is a prime example of what we Crossfit nerds at the time viewed as the greatest tenet of self-improvement: Total Failure.
Failure of your muscular structure supposedly leads to a break down and regeneration of stronger musculature. Failure of your mental faculty to overcome an arbitrary barrier supposedly forces us to learn coping or avoidance mechanisms necessary to move on. Failure teaches us, at the very least, our outermost limits, our tolerance, the edge of our known physical limits.
In extreme fitness, however, the key to embracing failure is to also not trust what we define as failure. Humans are good at setting low terms to failure. The thinking at Crossfit was basically that unless we fail spectacularly, we cannot objectively know Total Failure, as such.
This woman found what by all appearances is an undeniable threshold of Total Failure. By contrast, for example, failure for me might have been defined by having given up miles ago and deciding to prance in dead last (more on finishing last, later), disqualifying the event, rather than myself. More likely knowing my physical limits today, my failure would be in walking off the track whenever the benefit of finishing was out-performed by my desire to stay comfortable. That’s how most people define failure: quitting.
I don’t know if I’ve ever needed to know my true fail threshold. I’ve tested it in a multitude of ways, many times over. I’ve attempted to starve down to a desirable weight and failed at failure when realizing the cliché of body dysmorphia would bother me more than a stubborn waist line. I’ve failed at failure when testing sleeplessness with drugs during a particularly naive gesture at literary grandeur. I failed because my deep-seeded Asian immigrant hated feeling sorry for tragic geniuses. I failed at failing my academic resilience because I didn’t want to be a complete nerd. I failed at failing my sexual proclivities because I am afraid of disease after seeing too much of the 90s and testing my fail rate at unprotected sexual promiscuity felt like a supreme insult to the queer communities I surround myself in now. I continue to fail at finding my fail thresholds today because today: I am a pussy disguised as an enlightened woman approaching her middle age. Today I am about finding the beauty in the middle passage, the bardo of agitation, of finding the journey in my life and no longer the destination, the finish line. And while all this sounds like it’s been printed in cursive on driftwood in Joana Gaines’ living room, it’s not spiritual necessarily. I would fail at failing my limits in religion, not even pseudo-Buddhism I evoke in “being here now” mumbo jumbo, because I can’t subsume all my journeys to the final destination of death. The frankly churlish and lazy idea that anyone can afford to take their mind off the miasma of news, should, has already terraformed common sense to capitalist propaganda and cannibalized on the basic tenets of posterity — that we should leave the earth a better place for our progeny, generally, and not richer, specifically.
I digress. I wanted to tell you guys about my most perfect failure. This year, I finished my very first novel, and it is such a spectacular failure it makes the Crossfit racer look like Krishna Sai Rahul Eluri. (Watch this. Please.)
Finishing a first draft of a novel is a Total Failure.
I will never take for granted the limits of failure, having had an ugly finish to the process of writing a novel. The key difference between this and the Crossfit racer failing, is the competition. I mean yes, I became my own worst enemy in the process of self-reflection, but I’ve looked harder at myself any number of other more horrifying times. Like when I’ve been dumped, or saw a terrible picture of myself in a group photo tagged by idiot friends on Facebook that risked my ugly ass being seen by said dumpers. As far as failure can test our threshold, like it did the Crossfit racer, finishing a novel for me was actually more like competing in the Iditarod Race.
I heard a radio show segment about an Iditarod Race competitor who had famously only ever come in last the many times he’d competed. Waaaaaay last — like, days passed before he finished. [And by the way, listen, I googled this and can’t find the source of my anecdote, so forgive me any misremembered details. I’m trying to give you what I think is plausible context for failure but I hope the irony of an incomplete story is not lost on us. I’ll update somewhere if I do recover the source link.] The Iditarod is a super-homeo-canine sled race for which finishing is already a win. To the truism that whether one wins or loses is not the point of a race; that “how” you lose is more important than “whether” you won, I suppose that knowing I can fail into the finish line, come in last place, is enough for now.
I qualify myself as a novelist now. I usually amend this with “aspiring” or “unpublished,” and when talking to published professionals it sounds more like:
I’m a writer who has been working on several novels but I am currently still shopping agents and have the audacity to call the best editors and writers in the world, friends. I’ve made many of them read my writing and I think it’s passable.
That’s all to say that I haven’t been afraid to show my threshold for failure to peers and potential critics. That’s because somehow, by the grace of God, I do not experience jealousy anymore. And I do credit this to a supernatural blessing — my faith in a higher power lies exclusively in the grace they’ve bestowed me to rise above jealousy. The thing is, jealousy is really fucking great fuel for competition, which is the best lubricant for productivity, and prophylactic against failure. This is not an excuse, but one of many realities for me. The bargain I’ve had to make to afford one kind of self-confidence — natural placidity in the face of petty gendered aggressions, many forms of which I recognize from the narcissism of my own difference against sexual rivals, and acquiescence to The System that feeds and protects me and my family from unpredictable and volatile media industries — at the expense of another kind of self-confidence — the limerent kind that verges on religious ecstasy, like when you see your byline travel across the universe and back to your soul, tracking with it a trail of equal parts stardust and toxic waste like one of those superhero origin stories where the DNA strands braid healthy red with evil black, and it doesn’t matter anymore if you’re good or bad because by the time you’ve consumed your own shit you’re at the very least, notorious.
I no longer qualify myself as a professional writer. I’m confident I am a good writer and I’m sure I’m a failed novelist. I’m confident I can identify good writing (and bad), and that helps me write well (possibly helps me write poorly too, alas). I demonstrate the musculature and discipline that the Crossfit racer does — I am a rhetorical Teuton. But watching playback footage of the final stretch of novel-writing, I am crawling, then rolling, refusing disqualification, to the finish line. I am also the captain of a dogsled team proud to finish last in the Iditarod. I am Tiger Woods missing the final cut at The Masters I’d won an improbable three times before getting my dick caught in the cookie jar. I’m Tony Harding as a wrestler. I’m that Jeopardy contestant who has a perfectly respectable job title during the introduction but insists on talking about my roman à clef (and I’ll over-pronounce it just like them italics) during the first break with Alex Trebek. Oh god actually if you are a friend you will never let me become that big of a tampon.
I have hope left I will run the race again and fail a little more gracefully, but I am so glad I found the floor.