Failure Landscape

There’s a story I sometimes tell about myself (or tell on myself, perhaps).

I minored in art as an undergraduate. The long studio hours tried my patience, but I craved the repetitive tactile sensations of building or painting. In my first sculpture class, the instructor provided basic safety instructions for all the tools and machines and then stepped back to let us experiment. He was a graduate of one of the Southern California art schools that cultivated the danger aesthetic in performance art–students trying to breathe water and shoot one another in the arm and all that–and he wasn’t overly concerned with teaching technique. I started out making small, contained, even cute assemblages. I favored materials I could thrift or trash-pick–broken glass, scrap wood–and I tended to build around easy college-level themes, like heartache and loneliness. I made steady Bs with this work, which was slightly demoralizing, but my GPA wasn’t truly in danger and I did love keeping my hands busy in the noisy studio.

Eventually it would be my turn to present a sculpture in workshop, and during the week leading up to it, I was in a panic. I’d started a number of projects but lacked the skill or materials to see them through. I’d thrifted fistfuls of steak knives which I intended to solder onto the wings of a wireframe bird I made, but I was too anxious to operate the welding torch and it turns out that cheap knives are not really made of the right stuff for welding. I had also thrifted a novelty coffee cup and a single-mug hot plate which I intended to wire up into some kind of college-level commentary on office work (coffee, amirite? Mondays?), but I couldn’t visualize the finished object. I smashed up some bottles and carefully layered the curved shards of glass into the shape of a rose, which was highly successful–my relatives still display the roses I made for them out of delicately-hued glass vases later that year–but I had already turned in a broken-glass project earlier in the term, so I needed a new medium. At the final hour, I picked up a slab of wax and began hacking a face out of it with the studio carving tools, but ended up carving up my own hands rather badly instead. Then it was time to bandage up and go to workshop.

When it was my turn, I arranged all my little unfinished pieces onto a board and called it “Failure Landscape.” I talked about some of the tools I used and the processes I’d followed. As I talked, I gestured. Some of my bandages came loose; by the time I finished my presentation, I had rivulets of blood running down my arm.

I got an A.

I tell this story to joke about my flightiness: plans abandoned, dozens of unfinished drafts in both of my blogs, the painting class I enrolled in and then dropped in graduate school. What do you expect, the story goes, when you get rewarded for turning in an incomplete? When all your half-baked ideas are so special they become art? Sometimes the story is about bleeding for your art, and then I do an image search for Chris Burden’s Shoot (1971) to illustrate the point.

I see now that this is a little unkind to myself as well as to my sculpture instructor. I clearly was in a panic at the idea of turning in a work-in-progress. As for the instructor, perhaps it’s more fair to say that “Failure Landscape” is the first time he saw me learn something I didn’t already know, start a project without already envisioning how it would end.

 

I’ve been thinking about my failure landscape often this fall. I am enrolled in one of the online classes offered by the university where I work: creative writing, for the first time since college. In some ways, the class assignments remind me of the anarchy of the sculpture studio: we don’t talk much about technique in the way I understand it, and our assignments can go in any direction although we are meant to engage with the themes of the weekly readings. The readings remind me of books I’ve read and conversations I’ve had with friends, so I write down little anecdotes of my daily life with pleasure. When we had a longer assignment, I divided my pages up into short contained passages. You’ve seen me do it here: three stories about grief, three stories about grad school, three stories about coincidences, and so on. What can I say–I like compartments. I like sets of three.

The creative writing instructor asked me to consider a revision exercise: open a new document, paste the first paragraph of the first passage into it, then the first paragraph of the second passage, and so on. Then paste the second paragraph of the first passage, the second paragraph of the second passage, and so on. Trust that your voice will still be there, he said. Trust that the meanings you made will still be in the text.

I did try it. I did like it. When my paragraphs fell in a different order, I was still telling the stories I meant to tell but they seemed bigger, somehow. Internally, I read them in the voice I use for poetry. Then I felt that I wanted bigger line breaks between some of the passages–I wanted it to be clear that the tone was meant to shift, the scene was meant to change. But when I added the blank space between passages, all the copy above and below it looked like it belonged to a complete story or vignette, when that wasn’t always the case. I was trying to put my writing into containers again.

That’s not inherently bad or wrong–it’s just that I don’t think I understood why I was doing it until I tried so intentionally to mix it up, make a bit of a mess, leave some seams showing. I can appreciate the exercise of it, the temporary discomfort as a means to becoming more knowledgable and confident in my limits as well as my strengths.

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