On the Possibilities of Failure

My semester has ended with its usual whimper.

April 28, 2012

My semester has ended with its usual whimper.

I’m not sure why I’m always expecting bangs when we reach the finish line, but maybe it has something to do with me viewing the end of my courses (in this case, freshman academic writing) as some kind of finish line.

Am I alone in this feeling of letdown, a certain “end of camp” ennui? Even after more than a decade of teaching writing I find myself with inflated expectations for what’s going to happen to and for my students during the course of the semester. I have images of them entering class as fresh buds, just needing a little water and sunlight to open, things that I will provide in spades. By the end, as I read through their final researched essays I’m hoping for a bouquet of flowers, but for the most part, inevitably, I am disappointed.

It’s not that B-level or even C-level work can’t have some measure of beauty, but if you are wishing for roses and someone brings you daisies, well…

I usually blame me. Sure, there’s often one or two who check out of class early and often, the wayward that no amount of border collie-ing can bring back to the flock, but for the most part, if students don’t get all that I wish them to, somehow this is my failing. The students, particularly the unjaded freshman students, are eager, bright, dedicated. They want to learn and do well. I want them to learn and do well. If they are not doing as well as they could or should, the problem is most likely mine.

If only becomes my mantra. If only I’d talked more about X instead of Y. If only we’d spent more time on Z.

I recognize, rationally, that the problem lies in my expectations, which are outsized. If I look at the larger picture, the scope of their writing and assignments, progress is evident, just not as much as seemed possible at the beginning.

Though I sometimes forget this, I also know that in addition to all their other courses, during an average semester my students may be struggling with the kinds of things that have the potential to cause total derailment: a gravely ill loved one, near full-time work schedules, breakups, illness, and any one or more of myriad smaller misfortunes. It’s more probable than not that the student work I find not wholly satisfying succeeds beyond any reasonable expectations when measured against everything else that was going on in that student’s life.

I wrote earlier about “failure” in a way that promised a series, and I initially conceived of this dispatch as part of it. I’ve been thinking about how so much of my time is spent on work that necessitates more failure than success, trying to figure out what draws me to these things, wondering if perhaps I get some sort of perverse pleasure out of falling short.

I am a writer, and as has been well-established, even the successes in this field come bundled with many more failure. Last year I published a novel, a dream since I was 10 years old, but beneath that success are three novel-length failures that will never see the light of day. Even the successfully published novel was rejected by many, many publishers before finding a home, and once published, it did not do particularly well, sales-wise. Some critics didn’t care for it either.

When I look at it now, I see more ways it could be improved than anyone.

Teaching is similar, an extended exercise in falling short. Even in those magical semesters or courses where everything seems to gel, there’s a hiccup or two. This semester was a good one, a blessing of interesting students, but I made a scheduling mistake in drawing up my syllabus that nearly derailed everything, the kind of mistake I haven’t made in years, and shook me up not because of the harm it did (because it turned out fine), but because of the nature of the mistake, an error I thought I was immune to.

I do not believe that I get some sort of perverse enjoyment over falling short, and yet, even though it is constant in my life and work, I continue to pursue writing and teaching. It’s possible that I’ve reached a balance, where the success somehow outweighs the failure. Having a novel published at all is enough, right?

Except that I don’t feel that way. Mostly I think about how it disappointed -- disappointed me, my agent, my editor and publisher. It was a great thing to publish that book. It wasn’t enough. In fact, I’m not even sure what level of success could have been enough. No matter what level of success you reach, there’s still another above you.

Except in Donkey Kong. You can totally beat that game.

In considering all this, I realized that what I’m really attracted to is not failure, but possibilities. Writing is always about possibilities. The blank page could become a masterpiece. At the very least, it could result in something better than I’ve ever done before.

Mostly, it’s a chance to tell and experience another story. I’ve always loved stories.

Each semester, each course, each student is a fresh possibility, a story that I’ll get to see unfold. I don’t know how someone could turn their back on that.


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