Mind the Gap: the uses of failure

As I go on as a writer, it’s become increasingly clear that story is provoked by failure more than success. If my back’s against the wall, I’d say it’s the crack, the fissure, the break, the accident, the mistake, the malapropism, and so on that gives a story traction. But that failure has to matter. The human involved has to be doing everything in their power (and that has to be on the page) to succeed (even if it’s a self-destructive succeeding at failure!). Otherwise, we’re on to you and won’t buy it. Take Charlie Chaplin, take Jack Halberstam, take my life experience. 

Chaplin (and Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and countless others) understood that comedy happens because one’s best efforts have fallen short. In the gap lies the hilarity. The assembly line speeding up, the cop in hot pursuit; a bear silently following a lone gold miner. The miner ends up in a cabin seeking shelter from the storm, but then so does a notorious criminal, followed by the bear — and then the wind blows the cabin to the edge of a cliff. These scenes are made of many events (discoveries, recognitions, learnings) each of which allow the story to progress to the next. No event, no story. No learning, no story. No recognition, no story. And very little comedy. 

For his part, Jack Halberstam, a queer scholar, has dug into the Queer Art of Failure to mine the particular uses that our queer lens offers critical interrogation. He advocates for the dummies, the absent-minded, the not-knowers. Finding Nemo or Dude, Where’s My Car? only progress or become worth watching because the people (or fish) fight for what they want in spite of a condition (short-term memory loss, stupidity) which governs how they might move forward. We queers are total failures. We’ve failed the gender norms assigned to us; we’ve failed our duty as productive members of society (we tend to not reproduce. But this is changing, of course.); we’ve failed to maintain the Oedipal structures of mommy, daddy and me as our family bonds find their strength in their plasticity and capacity to change. This insight is a goldmine for writers. Every human (ask any character in any classical myth) makes their way within a set of conditions. And these conditions (mental, physical, spiritual, social, emotional, etc.) are chock full of failure. And so story. 

Writing about myself or life experience isn’t particularly interesting to me. But mining that experience for story, insight and some meat that might feed story is. There is no way to move forward in life (the only direction available, by the way) without failure. And it bites. Don’t get me wrong. This is not a chin-up, self-help post. No. My point is that because I have failed, I can stand in my own shoes. Because I believed too strongly, I overlooked an obvious glitch; because I was too smart for my own good, I took the hard road but not the easy. Because I needed to be touched and to be seen, I sought the comfort of strangers who couldn’t hold me. There are a million more examples. What’s true of me is true of the people I write.

Failure causes story. Today, when I am faced with a scene in which the energy is lagging or I am not sure of the direction, I sniff out the failures. For it is when story people come face to face with what went wrong, that they can use everything that they’ve got (every intelligence, every skill, every wit, everyone, and every thing) to overcome, to repair, to recover. And it is in the recognition of failure, the discovery that a fault line has emerged that they, and we, have an opportunity to move forward.  It is only with this newly-discovered and moment-to-moment traction that their story, and ours, hurtles forward. Fail. And then fail again. If you’re not failing, you’re not writing.

Craft a failure: mine your work for places where it doesn’t quite pop; where you can’t quite ‘feel it’. This could be a place to fail. Allow your person to make a mistake; allow equipment to breakdown/shortcircuit; allow the weather to get nasty, etc. And let your people use everything at their disposal to engage/overcome/repair this fissure. BUT, they only get to proceed in their repair if they’ve learned something new which allows them to go forward. If they don’t use what they learned, then the story isn’t moving forward. Play strict. Go for it. Report back. 

If you’d like to enrol in a workshop, check out the WCTO page.