Failure – unalloyed, inexorable failure – is difficult to swallow but it is also impossible to overlook. In few places is failure more brutal, more acutely felt, than in New York. Yet failure in this city has a way of concealing itself and in some cases can assume the guise of success.
Outright failure can serve as a corrective, a signal (or hammer blow on the head), which lets you know that you are possibly heading in the wrong direction and might wish to rethink your course. If you have your heart set on something – landing a part in a play, publishing a novel – it usually requires repeated blows, one more crushing than the last, before you throw in the towel. Some people never do, of course.
Failure is a loaded word. What constitutes failure is often in the eye of the beholder; someone who appears to be a failure to the rest of the world may not feel like a failure at all and in any case, the ability to handle and overcome failure is considered a crucial measure of character. By the same token, a person who is perceived to be staggeringly successful may deep down feel like an imposter, unworthy of the fortune that has been bestowed on him. All that said, it may be instructive to examine some of the forms that failure – or a frustrating lack of sustained success -- can assume in a city which puts so much stock on image. Someone who is a “failure” can by a bit of legerdemain and a sense of style transform himself into a person who, because everyone thinks he’s on top of his game, actually is.
There are stories -- or cautionary tales – about writers who persevere and triumph over nearly insurmountable odds. I once attended a party thrown by a freelance magazine writer who’d papered the walls of her apartment (including her bathroom) with literally hundreds of rejection letters she’d received over the years. But she wasn’t commemorating her repeated failure to get published; she’d thrown the party to celebrate the sale of a story to a periodical for a good deal of money. Such an ostentatious display of failure as she put on is something that can be indulged in only by someone who has achieved a certain level of success. You can see this same phenomenon on a larger scale in Silicon Valley where failure has become a badge of honor (at least in retrospect) and youthful CEOs of aborted start-ups boast of how many millions they burned through.
Because New York is such a magnet for talent from all over the world the competition is especially daunting. All the same, if you do have talent – or you manage to get your foot in the right door (obviously not the same thing) – you may eventually get lucky. Your short story or poem is accepted by Ploughshares or the Paris Review. Your book finds an agent or a publisher. A small film producer pays you $5000 for a six-month option on your novel. Anyone can be forgiven for construing such a break, especially coming after a long, dry spell, as a sign that the gates have at long last swung open. The way is clear. Bigger, better deals are sure to follow. Hollywood will come calling. Maitre d’s at trendy restaurants will know your name.
This is where it gets tricky. Drug dealers will hook future customers by initially providing them with free samples. A little success acts in much the same way (even if it usually doesn’t run the risk of imprisonment); a little success acts like an intoxicant. Once you have a taste of it you want more. Those who would have given up are seduced into thinking that they can actually make a go of it, after all. It is stunning, not to say disheartening, to discover that the initial success doesn’t invariably lead to more and greater successes. Actors understand this dilemma all too well. An actress I knew struggled valiantly to get work; she studied acting and regularly lined up for auditions. She eked out a living as a coat check girl in an uptown restaurant and later traveled around the country as a model for car shows where she was expected to look pretty while expounding on automotive innovation, a subject she knew next to nothing about. It’s likely that she would have given up on an acting career altogether if it weren’t for the fact that from time to time she would be offered a part – a job with a summer stock or dinner theater company. These gigs paid little, just enough to settle a few bills before the next ones came due, but nonetheless they made her feel that things were finally coming together for her.
Eventually she reached the conclusion that a life as an actor was too erratic to build a career on and she switched to…writing. It wasn’t that she didn’t have the talent to be writer. On the contrary, she was a very good writer. At first she decided to try her hand at a romance novel, figuring that a genre novel would be a good way to break into the business. (Filmmakers starting out use the same approach when they make low-budget horror flicks.) She familiarized herself with varieties of the genre and then went ahead and tried to write one herself, choosing to use a formula based on ‘The Second Chance at Love Series’ if I remember correctly. The manuscript was rejected, not because it was poorly written but because it was too well written, too “literary” for readers of the series. Undeterred, she scraped together the funds to attend a graduate writing program on the west coast. A surprising number of students in her class would go on to write critically acclaimed bestsellers that commanded significant advances. But my friend didn’t do so badly. Within a couple of years of earning her Masters she found a top New York agent and sold her first book, a literary novel, for a modest advance. The novel was accorded a warm reception from critics, but it didn‘t fly off the shelves. There was some talk of a movie option but nothing came of it. Her agent, a tough-minded woman lacking the patient or interest in nurturing budding talent, dropped her. Several years had to pass before my friend was able to sell her second novel. This one was about a subject she knew well: struggling young actors trying to make it in New York. Again the book was greeted enthusiastically by reviewers but again its sales were hardly exceptional. In other words, her writing career had followed much the same trajectory as her acting career had, tantalizing her with the promise of success, confirming her obvious talent, but without giving her the wherewithal to pursue her art and find the audience she deserved. Can this be called failure? Is the glass half empty or half full?
There is another kind of failure – the failure to live up to early success. This is in a sense a problem of timing. Back in the mid-seventies a playwright – let’s call him Nelson Mathis – made a big splash with a two hander that ran for several months in an Off-Off-Broadway theater in downtown Manhattan. Nelson was reaping tens of thousands of dollars a week. A big bear of a man, he looked more like a logger or longshoreman than a playwright, which only enhanced his image. He seemed determined to spend money as fast as he was making it – faster actually. In those days the ingestion of cocaine, washed down with expensive champagne, was an effective way to go about this. Nelson hired a limo on a daily basis and would invite friends – and he had more of them all the time -- from his local watering hole to accompany him on rides around town although eventually he ran out of destinations and friends.
I ran into him many years later. At the time he was living in upstate New York in a kind of exile. New York simply presented too many temptations, he said, some of which were potentially lethal. “I made a million dollars in six weeks,” he recalls of the period when his play was a hot ticket. He still sounded astonished by his good fortune. He subsequently won an Emmy for writing an episode of St. Elsewhere. But he admitted that he seldom wrote plays at all anymore. Instead he churned out short stories – slices of life he called them. He said that he’d amassed two or three hundred of them, all written by hand. “I need to find a typist.” No one else has ever laid eyes on these stories. It didn’t seem as if he was in any rush to show them, either. It seemed to me that Nelson was still competing against his younger self and falling farther and farther behind.
There’s another type of failure, one which can also masquerade as success. It’s what happens when a would-be novelist puts his way his manuscript and decides to take a “real” job – he goes into advertising or law, or does another type of writing altogether, working for trade magazines, for instance, or pounding out thrillers. His heart isn’t in the endeavor he chooses, but he does well at it; he makes a good living that enables him to buy a nice house and put his kids through college. To the outside world he’s an undisputed success, but inside maybe he feels that he hasn’t lived up to his ideal. He has let down his dream. Maybe he would never be any good as a novelist or short story writer, but he’ll never know. That manuscript he started but never finished, or finished but never tried to sell, lies buried in his bottom drawer or forgotten on his hard drive. It’s the embodiment of a secret self that will never have the chance to see the light of day and a repository of the hopes of a life that will never be lived.