Writers on Writing #60: Peter Selgin
Some folks prefer not to discuss their failures, to keep them hidden away in fusty attics or dark file cabinet drawers, under the bed with the dust bunnies, in plain brown porn video wrappers or package store pint bottle bags.
Me, I’m not ashamed of my failures, my artistic abortions and miscarriages; in fact, I’m proud of them—as struttingly proud as a cock over his brood. What’s more I’ve been prolific, producing failures of every stripe. Failed novels, failed stories, failed songs and plays and paintings—not to mention failed loves, failed friendships, one failed (after sixteen years) marriage, let alone moral and philosophical failures, failures of nerve, wit, compassion and confidence. My life has been a feast of failures, a regular smorgasbord! Come: step up to the banquet table, check out my sumptuous spread. Put on your lobster bib. Better make that a Sou’wester. It’s going to be a messy meal.
We’ll stick to the entrée cart, the failed novels. My novelist friend Don Newlove calls his failed masterpieces “trunk novels,” since that’s where they wind up. Though he won’t show his failures to anyone, Don’s proud, too. He put a lot into those failures—a lot of words, a ton of ego, a heap of arrogance, an Everest of ambition, gallons of coffee and dago red and every other type of booze. What novelist worth his or her salt doesn’t have a trunk of failures or their equivalent? And why shouldn’t we be proud of them? Without them would we possibly be what we are? Can there be success without failure?
My failed novel trunk is a Dropbox folder euphemistically labeled “book-length works.” Note the conspicuous absence in that label of any reference to the defunct state of its contents: only that they are “works” (not novels, not failed) of a certain length (“book”—precisely what they haven’t become). The label slyly avoids any suggestion of tense: these are not works “in-progress,” no, nor are they finished or abandoned. They exist in a perpetual purgatory, suspended in the limbo between heavenly high hopes and the flames of futility. Highlight and drag them to the recycling bin, then hit “empty trash” or whatever it’s called on your computer. That would be the sane thing to do.
But I’m not sane; I cannot bear to part with my stillborn offspring. Instead, once every few months, I click on the Dropbox folder, pry open the lids of the dozen or so virtual coffins inside, and run my eyes over the rotting corpses. Within those bundles of putrefying ambition here and there one finds an organ or two still intact, a heart beating, a gut pulsing, a gland excreting, a lung breathing, a muscle twitching, a cortex of synapses firing. My dead babies!
Look at this one. I called it “Harris’ Book.” It’s my “Land O’ Lakes” novel. You know, Land O’ Lakes—the butter company with the logo showing an Indian squaw holding a box of Land O’ Lakes butter on which an Indian squaw holds a box of Land O’ Lakes butter et cetera ad infinitum? “Harris’ Book” is my novel about a blocked novelist failing to write a novel about a blocked novelist, et cetera ad infinitum. Written in notebook form, with words, sentences, and whole passages struck through as poor Harris second (and third and fourth) guesses himself. Meanwhile his “novel” accrues accidentally, in spite of him. A random passage:
Harris proceeded to his favorite barbershop, where he had been going now for—what, fifteen, twenty years? When a By the time a man enters his sixth decade (as he’d done some time ago) the half-decades begin to blur and wander, trading places as promiscuously eagerly as guests participants at an orgy. Some orgy! Divorced going on seven years (that felt more like two or three), partnerless in every sense of that word, unable (or unwilling—the distinction eluded him) to abide any form of romantic entanglement since the debacle (his preferred designation term for the disastrous affair he had with his landlady’s daughter niece) that resulted in the termination of his twenty--threeseven year marriage. But why think of all that now? (I am not a bad man!). He has just deboarded the train at Grand Central Station Terminal. The newspaper Post has forecast a sunny cool springautumn fall day. The barbershop, with its calm odors, opera scores, and soothing unguents and opera scores, beckons. It’s the little things, Harris tells himself, the small pleasures of life that matter. Not the cake, but the icing on the cake it.
“Complete” at 389 accidental pages, having never once darkened an editor or agent’s desk, read only by its instigator, “Harris’ Book” went straight into the Dropbox folder. Yet how can it be a failure, when it does just what its author set out to do, and not so badly, if I say so myself. The cause of many “failures” the reason they “fail,” isn’t because they don’t live up to expectations, but because they do. They deliver on promises made with respect to goods no one asked for or wants. The early reviewers of Moby Dick wanted a straightforward seafaring tale; instead, they got an existential shaggy whale story in quasi-Biblical prose. A failure.
But I’m not through with my ghoulish banquet; I’ve just started. What else have we here? Ah, yes, “Ariadne’s Thread,” my Greek Island roman à clef (325 pages, illustrated by the author). A diptych, its two books share the same protagonist but employ different narrative strategies (the first is in the first person; Book Two in the third). This was something of a “found novel.” I wrote the first book as a fictionalized travelogue; the second grew out of a notebook I kept twelve years later, which, while transcribing it, I shifted into the third person while giving the central character (me) a fictitious name (“Andreas”). No sooner did I finish transcribing it than I put the printed result in a file drawer, only to read it a year or two later and find, to my astonishment, that it read like a novel. Since it was only 180 pages, I struck upon the clever idea of joining it to the other Greek book, underscoring the theme of the main character’s journey from dewy-eyed fiancé touring the Cycladic isles with his bride-to-be, to fresh divorcé licking his wounds under the blazing Aegean sun. Despite owing too obvious a debt to Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (with its heavily impastoed descriptions: see below), I’ve still got a soft spot for this failure. Book Two opens thus:
Quays are lonely places, no-man’s stretches of dull concrete, piers, wharves, winches, rusty dinosaur-like cranes stooped over ferries and cargo ships, rotting, oxidizing, everything losing a longstanding argument with the sea. The sea: pale Aegean out there somewhere, amethyst islands not appearing or rising but simply occurring, like all good ideas, on the horizon. For now, though, brooding cranes and rusting ferry hulls preside over all things, including expectations. Andrew sits with legs dangling over petrol-streaked waters, watercolor block cradled on his thighs, pure sable brush drying, 100% cotton rag paper blindingly white, peering past squawking gulls and harbor fumes, the colors all drained from his brushes and his thoughts. Still, he wonders what he’s doing here, mulling over rainbow-stained waters, his ex-wife, home and career left behind in New York. Whatever compelled him to take this journal alone, i.e.—according to Ambrose Bierce—in bad company?
What other unsung masterpieces fill my Dropbox folder? Hmm, what have we here—another failed novel? Nope, a failed memoir. “The Inventor of Memories” interweaves two stories, that of my Italian immigrant inventor papa who to his death denied his Jewish ancestry, and “Bill Prudhomme,” the pseudonym for my eighth grade English teacher who was my idol and who invented much, if not all, of his own biography. As I say in my (unpublished) memoir’s (unpublished) preface:
We’re made of the past. What we remember (or think we remember or choose to remember) defines not only who we were, but who we are. From memories sifted, sorted, selected, or synthesized—unconsciously or willfully—we construct our narratives, stories in which we play the central role. In that sense we’re all inventors.…
A few paragraphs later:
…[T]hrough this internal dialogue I hope not just to relieve my own sense of loneliness, but to gain and share some insight. I hope, too, in telling the story of a boy’s pursuit of his teacher, to pay tribute to two people whose hold over him that boy will never escape. May you join in sympathy with what follows.
Incredible as it may seem, in writing those words I had no idea how desperate they sounded, that I was begging readers to forbear with me while regaling them with 500 pages of my depressive overbearing self. I exaggerate. The book’s not so terrible, really. In fact it has some good moments, like this one where I (or rather “you,” since I wrote the whole thing in second person the better to doom its chance at publications) describe my genius Papa’s pathetic attempt to help me clean my mother’s stove:
For this one task you sought your father’s help, putting him in charge of the top burners while you attended to the oven. You handed him a can of Easy-Off. A half hour later your father stood with the stove irons dangling from black hands, dripping brownish goo into the dog’s dish, a helpless look on his face. I can’t put this back together, he said. It’s simply not possible. You turned to the sink where he’d washed the irons and where it looked as if someone had struck oil. The counter, the curtains, the dish rack, sponges, potted plants—all were black with grunge. Pal, the family dog, leapt up to lap away at the still dripping irons.
Admit it—that’s not so bad, right? Agents and editors didn’t think so, hence to the Dropbox it’s been consigned.
The failure that wins the overbearing contest hands-down is “Walking Wounded,” my second attempt at a “novel” (the first having been so wretched it’s not even worthy of the Dropbox). Yet even this botch of a book has its moments:
…A drunk merchant mariner at the Cafe Borgia. He has a broken arm that he keeps on shifting to make sure it still hurts. “Drunk as I am—ow!—is good, my friend!” Thick Greek accent. “Drunk as I am—is good!” When I refuse to smoke a cigarette he offers me from a freshly opened pack, he looks confused and hurt. The bottoms of my pants are wet. Earlier, caught in the rain, I sought refuge in the vestibule of a bric-a-brac store where the clerk, an old woman, fumbled for her keys. She swore and said the owner would be there soon. “Are you looking for anything in particular?” she asked. (Were I looking for something in particular would I do it in a bric-a-brac store?) I shook my head and smiled. Meanwhile the rain kept falling, making the streets look sticky and the traffic lights glow dimmer, driving people under awnings. I took in the comic book display, the Howdie Doodie dolls, the post cards wrapped in cellophane, the boxes of toys and trinkets and beads. “The rain hurts so many people,” the old woman said, “the people selling hot dogs and ice cream, the peddlers and musicians, the pretzel and the falafel man. They wait for the tourists, then the tourists come and they bring the rain, and the ones trying to feed their families get disap-pointed.” … The Greek sailor shifts his arm again. “Ow—is good!” My life is an assembly line. As the feelings go by one by one in little jars I stuff wads of cotton into the bottlenecks…
There are half dozen more manuscripts, including that of my fourth failed novel, “The Sidewalk Artist,” about a New York ad exec who chucks it all to become a Madonnaro, one of those people who draws on the sidewalk with colored chalk. In the climactic scene the hero rescues a hansom cab driver, an octogenarian Parkinsonian portraitist, and other “colorful” urchins from a tunnel fire in the bowels of Grand Central, where they’d been living. The book is maudlin, trite, sentimental, saccharine, and thoroughly implausible. So why didn’t it sell?
What most disheartens me about these failures isn’t their badness, but the fact that they aren’t that bad; worse, that they have their good qualities. If they were simply bad, life would be easier. I’d rid myself of them by whatever virtual means are available these days, then pretend to wipe my hands together the way actors do in movies when they’ve disposed of something unpleasant. And that would be that. No more mourning, no more brooding, no more wondering what might have been, or—with one more teensy-weensy revision—what might yet be. Like the fabled Phoenix I would rise, but instead of flames I’d alight from a smoldering ash-heap of miscarried manuscripts. Freed of the weight of past failures, I’d soar on wings of potential: up, up, up into the bright sun of hope, up, up, up toward the glittering promise of my next book, the one I was born to write, the one that all those other books—those noble failures—were but finger exercises for, warm up drills, dress rehearsals. Up, up, up I climb on wings of paper sealed with wax toward the dizzying summit of success, higher and higher, my hopes growing brighter as I climb, till I’m dazzled, till I have to close my eyes, it’s so damn bright.
And if in my blind ambition I should climb too high, if I should soar too close to the sun, if the wax seals on my wings should start to melt, why worry? What does this struggling author have to fear? There’s always the Dropbox down below.
Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and two children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man: An Artist’s Memoir, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. His latest novel, The Water Master, won the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Society Prize. His essay, "The Kuhreihen Melody," won the Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize as well as the Dana Award for the Essay. He teaches at Antioch University’s low-residency MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.