by Anna Keesey
A few nights ago, while signing books at an event for the Oregon Humanities Association, I saw a short film in which the Oregon writer Kim Stafford spoke of failure. The film was projected on the white wall. Stafford stood against a blank background. He began, “When I let my brother commit suicide without recognizing his pain—“ and the room fell utterly silent.
It was not simply that brutal let. It was the brutal let in the dependent clause that opened the unknown sentence. In order to hear the whole thought, we had to accept the existence of a profound failure, in fact to posit the failure as the basis for continuing to hear and understand. Breath around the room was bated.
Including mine. I had been thinking about failure. About six months ago my first novel was published. Thanks to the expert efforts of those other than myself, it was widely reviewed, with some affection. Some people have bought it. A few people wept when reading it and were good enough to write and tell me so. A writer really couldn’t hope for more, the first time out, or any time, really. It was good. But one of the things people asked with intimidating regularity was, “How long did it take you to write it?”
I stand there, fifty years old, with my incipient wattle and my chronic sinusitis, feeling hunted. A long time, I say. Ten years, I say. Maybe twelve. But it was probably more. This is a lot of time, and not just in dog years. My interlocutors are sometimes encouraged by these data, but more often they boggle. Really? Why so long? Suddenly, my achievement seems diminished, as though the book’s value must be amortized over the time it took to produce it. I don’t want to feel this way. I want to say, “No apologies here! I’m chill with my life! I’m evolved and refuse to compare myself to others!” But the question sends me back into my past, thinking, “What was that? When I was writing, was I failing even as I strove to move forward?”
You must imagine me crouching, an unbent paper clip in my hand, trying to pull a lumpy woolen scarf through a keyhole. This is what writing a novel was like for me. It could be done, but it was painstaking work. A few millimeters would come, but then a bunching, or a knot in the wool, compelled retreat—that precious progress had to be poked back through and drawn forward again. The bit on this side of the keyhole, though perhaps gay in color, looked ragged from the journey. On the other side—who knew? Perhaps some dexterous artificer was behind the door knitting away, and if I remained patient and picked and pulled and picked and pulled with the little tool at my disposal, then as much as I pulled she would knit. But it was also possible that I was working in vain, that there was nothing much there, and what emerged from the keyhole would be weathered, ugly, and too short to wear.
I didn’t have a lot of tolerance for this uncertainty. I often abandoned my post. But that intolerance itself—that small repeated failure—bears investigating. What was it, really? A sadness, a desperation? Depressed doesn’t seem the right word. Depressed calls to mind a flattened version of myself, a woman-shaped lump of Silly Putty imprinted by a gigantic thumb. I wasn’t that smooth nor that coherent. I was weak, raw, impulsive, inadequate: a loose woman-shaped bag leaking acids, a bag occasionally seized by strange, impractical, and often short-lived needs and aspirations. Though I had most of the day to do it, I couldn’t keep my house clean. Too frightened of collapse to work full time, I was overwhelmed even by things I loved (garden, pets, books). I never met a man anything like right for me, and I was much too befogged to see it. I wanted to be a mother more than anything, but I couldn’t yet see a path to that, and I didn’t deserve it, anyway, because I was awful. That undertow always tugged me down into a cold cave, a black nest, a place of drowning.
An example: during this time, the emergency brake on my car was nearly stripped, and of course I could not imagine mustering the knowledge, energy, money and fortitude it would take to fix it: I would have to make decisions and talk to people, which was impossible. One day, when I had parked the car on the street and was watching “Four Weddings and a Funeral” under an afghan, the stationary car began to roll and went fifty yards backward down the hill to crunch the hood of the neighbor’s station wagon.
The neighbors emerged from their house like vengeful furies, loudly proclaiming my incompetence, my guilt, my arrogance, my drastic failure. I nodded, I looked at them wide-eyed, and believed them. I believed every word. It was what I’d been saying to myself as long as I could remember.
And writing, that waiting at the keyhole, seemed to invite more of the same feelings, so I only went there intermittently before I could think of a reason not to. Even so, over the years, pages did accumulate. At some point, a draft. A revision. A draft. A revision. But was it any closer to something? I couldn’t tell. I had thought I could write. I had been to school, and written stories and published them. But I couldn’t grow to the next place. I was stalled, stalled, over many years’ time, while the world with its arcing narratives, its developing maturing time, went on without me. The book that wasn’t was evidence of my nothingness.
One Thanksgiving it was so terrible I felt I could not drive home to my father’s house, only an hour away but treacherous with opportunities to drive the car into a bridge abutment. I didn’t know what to do, but I had to do something. I rolled the squishy bag of my weeping self to a psychiatrist. He asked questions and gave me medicines.
They tell you not to expect “relief of symptoms” at once. Several weeks. Maybe a month. But within a few days, the sky cleared. It just opened up and shone. I was idiotic with happiness.
In the foreshortened view of retrospect, it looks like everything that had been previously held in abeyance by my sadness and confusion began then clamoring to happen. I sought and took a full time visiting professorship. After some preliminaries, I adopted a little boy. I sought and took a tenure-track job. I met a Viking, who came complete with children and a dog. We bought a farm, grew tomatoes and chickens. All that had been potential was actualized. And in line with those manifestations came the energy to finish the book, to marshal and correct it, to make it do bidding. It was sold, and duly published.
All this took about five years. In five years, I did what I’d wanted to do for twenty. It’s tempting to say, it was all the medicine. I was depressed, I had a quaff of SSRI, and I found my lost self where she was hiding, and brought her out. Yet that interpretation may obscure other truths. That is, perhaps I couldn’t write the book because being a teacher and being a mother were in fact more important to me than writing a book. In this model, my sadness was the molasses I crawled through, but the direction was right. If not successful, I was at least wise.
Another possibility is less flattering: I dithered on purpose. In my family, we often interpret events by saying, “Based on results, you wanted to…” Based on results, I didn’t want to finish. Perhaps I was so afraid of writing a book that would not be publishable, or even if publishable, mediocre, that I chose avoidance and delay over the fear of those possible humiliations. That sounds like me: I still don’t like to be criticized. And perhaps I’d finally aged to the place where I realized I didn’t want to have potential anymore, even the potential to make an unimpeachable artwork. I was forty-five, old enough to realize that if I stalled forever, I’d be old, and then I’d have the “pleasure” of dying, knowing that I’d never been criticized because I’d never done anything.
Or perhaps it was never about anything but the richness. I may have been simply too distracted, by flowers, animals, food, reading, adventure, and people, to go back to the keyhole and pull that book through. It wasn’t the medicine that was the cure for the unfinished novel, but the black-haired baby boy of whom I was the sole support. I needed my job, and I needed to finish the book to be tenured in my job. In this model, the dynamic, seducing and beautiful world couldn’t speak louder than the roar of my love for my kid.
Oh, who the hell knows.
They’ve given me a nice gig at my college so that I can write more. I’ve started another book, and you can imagine the fear that waves over me. What if I can’t do it? SSRIs don’t help with the unknown.
But that line of Kim Stafford’s does help. Putting the acceptance of failure in the opening clause pulls one right close to the fear. Yes, the unwritten book is failed, flawed, broken and going nowhere. So there is no danger. There is no reason to run away.
After the end of the short film that began with Stafford’s declaration that he had let his brother die, I introduced myself to the man himself, who, like the rest of us, was standing humbly near a pile of his own books, waiting for someone to come and buy one. “Thanks for what you said in the film,” I told him. “I needed to hear that tonight.”
Then he said what comforts me, and makes me laugh, and will comfort me, and make me laugh, as I huddle at the keyhole with my paper clip, for ten years, maybe twelve. He plucked his shirtfront modestly.
“Failure,” he said. “My specialty.”
Anna Keesey is a graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and has held residencies at MacDowell, Bread Loaf, Yaddo, and Provincetown. Keesey teaches English and creative writing at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon.
Click here to read the “Post-40 Bloomers” piece on Anna Keesey at The Millions.