The third track on the Flaming Lips' At War with the Mystics is a song called "The Sound of Failure." Here are some of the lyrics:
She's starting to live her life
From the inside out
The sound of failure calls her name
She's decided to hear it out
Standing there in the graveyard
While the moon sprays its fireworks
in your hair
The sound of failure calls her name
She's decided to hear it out
I often need to remind myself that I need to hear failure out, because by failing at doing an easy thing, a groupthink thing, a thing one has been taught to do for one's career, one might be encouraged to make or do or be something more original and true. Because failing as an artist is a necessary thing, a thing I wish I could more easily accept.
A short story called "The Fiddler" tells the tale, in the first person, of a poet whose work has just been rejected by the publisher he sent it to. Here's how it begins:
So my poem is damned, and immortal fame is not for me! I am nobody forever and ever. Intolerable fate!
Snatching my hat, I dashed down the criticism, and rushed out into Broadway, where enthusiastic throngs were crowding to a circus in a side-street near by, very recently started, and famous for a capital clown.
As the story goes on, our narrator meets a friend, Standard, and then a friend of this friend, Hautboy, at the circus. Hautboy strikes our narrator as being sincere, of having good humor and a kind and honest heart. Our narrator is attracted by the happiness of Hautboy, whom he describes as having "a sort of divine and immortal air, like... some forever youthful god."
Our narrator asks his friend Standard about Hautboy and learns that Hautboy is "an extraordinary genius" who used to be a world-renowned violinist. Hautboy used to be in demand at all the great concert houses. He was "crammed... with fame," gold was showered upon him. However, because his fans kept demanding the same "hits" over and over and over, and Hautboy therefore began to lose his love of playing the violin, he gave up his career—and the accolades and money that went with it. He wanted to be able to play what and when and for whom he wanted. To enjoy, in other words, the pleasures of obscurity, of failure.
"With genius and without fame, he is happier than a king," Standard tells our narrator.
At the end of the story, Standard says to our narrator: "I have heard your poem was not very handsomely received." To which our narrator replies: "Not a word of that, for heaven's sake!" Because he has decided to abandon his dream of artistic fame and learn instead to play the fiddle.
"The Fiddler," written in l853, was one of a number of works dealing with the theme of "failure"—another was "The Happy Failure," another was "Bartleby, the Scrivener"—written by Herman Melville after the disastrous reception of his novel Moby-Dick.
When it was first published in 1851, Moby-Dick was, in terms of commercial and critical reception, a terrible failure. It was big, sprawling, philosophical, biblical, encyclopedic, and weird. It was, that is to say, not at all like the earlier "successful" novels Melville had written. Melville's first novel, Typee, a fictionalized account of his real-life adventures in Polynesia (naked ladies! Cannibals!), was a hit in both the United States and Britain, and his publishers and readers were thrilled when he brought forth a sequel, Omoo. Now, I am not at all dissing popular fiction. I love some of it. What I am dissing is the fact that some writers are punished when they try to expand their repertoire to include other things besides what's popular.
When Melville deviated from the kind of popular adventure he'd once written, critics called his work "trash," said it was "muddy, foul, and corrupt." One newspaper headline even blared: "HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY," and members of Melville's family arranged for a consult with a doctor about his sanity.
But Herman Melville had not gone insane. He had simply needed to write outside the standard "formula for success" books most people wanted. In a letter to his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, written while he was composing Moby-Dick, Melville said about his earlier adventure books:
They are... jobs which I have done for money—being forced to it as other men are to sawing wood... My only desire for their "success" (as it is called) springs from my pocket and not from my heart. So far as I am individually concerned & independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write the sort of books which are destined to "fail"—pardon this egotism.
Around this time, Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose Mosses from an Old Manse the 15-years-younger writer much admired. With Hawthorne, Melville was able to discuss his frustration with the difference between writing for marketplace "success" and writing for and from his soul and mind and heart: "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay. Yet altogether, write the OTHER way, I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches."
The hash, the botch, that Melville was working on at the time he wrote this letter was Moby-Dick. He dedicated it to Hawthorne.
Hawthorne recognized the merits of Moby-Dick, and so did a few other readers. But it was not until the 1920s, seven decades after it was published and three decades after Melville died, that Moby-Dick was "rediscovered" and began to be regarded as the masterpiece it is.
I wish I could, every time I am rejected by some arts-granting organization or magazine or publisher, remember stories like the story of Moby-Dick.
Or the story Upper Skagit elder Vi Hilbert told that was recounted in Seattle Art Museum's 2009 exhibit S'abadeb—the Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists:
A long, long time ago, there was a clumsy girl so ashamed of her uselessness she ran away to the woods. Through her tears she heard a voice telling her to gather plants and roots in order to fashion a container. The girl gathered the materials and wove them together into a loose basket, which the voice told her to take to the river and dip in to see if it was waterproof. The girl dipped it in and the water ran through, and she heard the voice say, "Try again." So the girl gathered her materials again and made another basket and took it to the river again, and again the basket could not hold water. Long story short: The girl had to make the basket four times before it was right, and when she finally did, the voice said, "Good. Nice basket. Now go give it to the oldest woman in your village." The girl, her invention of the art of basket-making having taken so long, was upset. She had done all this work, she had spent all this time to make this thing—and now she was supposed to give it away? "Yes," the voice told her. So the girl, who would soon become a woman, did so, and that is how the First Cedar Basket was made.
Or the story about Young Sook Park.
Young Sook Park, Korea's foremost ceramic artist, was asked to make a group of moon jars for show in a gallery. A moon jar is a traditional Korean vessel made of two thrown pots, pressed together at their lips to make one. Moon jars developed in the neo-Confucian culture of the Choson dynasty between the l5th and early 20th centuries and are the epitome of Choson sensibility, representing elegance, humility, integrity, purity, and self-control. They are solid white. Traditionally, moon jars have been relatively small—the size you can hold in one or both of your hands. But when Park went to look at the gallery and saw how huge it was, she realized that traditionally sized moon jars—which had been made for more intimate settings—would not be right there. So she decided to make really big ones. And though she had been a ceramist for decades, it took Park five years to make a moon jar the size she wanted. It was one of these five-years-in-the-making moon jars that I saw at the Seattle Asian Art Museum a while back, and it was stunning. Even if you didn't know what went into making it, you'd just find it plain beautiful.
Then, when I saw the making-of video, I was blown away. In one scene, a bunch of guys are loading some big, white, beautiful pots onto the back of a cart. As I watched the video I thought, They're being kind of cavalier—just popping those babies into the cart like that, with just a little piece of cloth between them. Then the guys push the cart a little way down a path and unload the cart, yanking the pots off and hauling them up into these woods.
Then I saw the artist, Young Sook Park, standing next to a big shallow hole in the ground. The guys bring the pots over to her, and she takes a hammer and slams it right into a pot. The pot breaks and she hammers it again and again, into smaller pieces, then kicks the busted pieces of pot into the hole, and the guys bring another pot and she does it again. Smashing all these huge beautiful pots to smithereens.
It turns out that each of those pots had some little flaw or crack or blemish, something most people wouldn't see, but not exactly what the artist wanted. So she knocked apart that "draft" to see how and where it broke apart, then took that knowledge back to her studio and started another pot again. She did this for years, failing and breaking, failing and learning and failing again on the way to make the object she desired.
What am I trying to tell myself? That artistic "success" doesn't come at once. That you may have to keep trying and trying to create the thing you have envisioned. That even if you make a thing you are proud of, "they" might not like it or get it, or might think that because you have been doing this work for years you are getting paid decently for it, even though you aren't.
That you might need to break a lot of pots, and write a lot of drafts, and that not everyone is going to like what you do. Which is why, however your work is received by "them," you need a good, true, decent friend or two—a friend or family member like Melville had, a writer pal or a bunch of fellow potters, actual practitioners of art—to believe in you and to understand and bear with you throughout the long hard work of creating your art, of your trying to live a life of making art.
That even if you do make something you are proud of, others may not recognize it at the time, if they ever recognize it at all.
That then, if you ever do "succeed" in making art you believe in, you need to be able to give it away.
The sound of failure calls my name. I'm still trying to learn to live with that. To hear it out and follow it, to fail, as Samuel Beckett said, then fail better. To fail then fail better, then fail and fail more but not to stop.
Rebecca Brown won a Stranger Genius Award in 2005. She is the author of more than a dozen books, including the novels The Gifts of the Body and The Dogs and the essay collection American Romances.