Oh, Alice… (Studying Failure and Sense of Self Worth)

For years I have been interested in the concept of failure. There is nothing extraordinary about this of course, I think any person who try to make something will be slightly obsessed with this concept.

I’ve felt like a failure for a big part of my adult life. There was a time where I would be on stage, singing, hearing people applaud, and feeling good about them telling me I’d done a great set. I felt proud of myself when I received good marks on my Master thesis in Comparative Literature as well. Then, at some point, after having to dedicate all my waking hours to earning money to pay my rent, doing things that I didn’t want to do (read: when the realities of adult life kicked in), something just went terribly wrong. I couldn’t find the energy to do anything. I was too afraid to apply for a grant to do a Phd, I was too afraid to sing, to be in a band, to write, to get to know people. I left my country and my home town, and wasted a couple of years working as a waitress in a big city on the continent (I could have written in my spare time, but I didn’t). Then, when I finally started my first office job, something in me just shut down. It’s been ten years now, and I still haven’t been able to produce anything of value besides my Master thesis.

I should probably let it go. I should make a child so that I can think about something besides myself. I should go to my office job and earn my money, think about buying a house… I should do whatever I can to stop this excruciating introspection, whatever I can to concentrate on other people, on the wellbeing of my partner, of my family, on the poor if you will (I’m not joking, I’ve often thought of this).

Should, should, should…  In those darkest moments when I wonder why I am alive at all, what the use of it all is, and why I should continue to live when I’m not able to do so with joy and with some kind of purpose, the only thing that really means something to me is music and literature. There is nothing that makes more sense to me then telling stories and entertaining others with songs and words. Music and literature is what makes me want to continue my life. Not love. Not other people.

Art. Work. Storytelling. Imagination. Knowledge.

I can’t let it go. If I let it go, I let go of my feeling of purpose.

But let’s get back to failure. It doesn’t make sense to talk about failure without understanding what success is. I think every person makes his or her own personal definition of success. I think my definition of success would be to live a whole life filled with interestingness and knowledge, without being crippled by fear of failure. I would like to live without feeling like a failure, without feeling like a nothing.

It is frustrating to feel like I have all this unused potential inside of me which can’t come out before I learn to tackle life differently. I don’t think talent means anything if you don’t know how to navigate and understand the social sphere where your work is supposed to exist. I’m constantly worried about other people, and how they will look at me if I present something that doesn’t have quality in their eyes. They all see me like this talented person, and I don’t want to disappoint them. I don’t want to be the subject of ridicule… The press is so mean these days. The internet is a jungle, it’s filled with abuse and mean people. I don’t know, it all just freaks me out.

If you don’t feel like you’re not worth something, how can you see your work as anything but garbage? How can anything substantial be produced by a person who doesn’t have any self worth?

We all ask ourselves these questions. Why write if you don’t have anything important to say? Why sit down every day and write if you’re not worth anything, if what is coming out of you is nothing but clichés and bullshit? Who would want to read your pointless babble? What’s the point of doing it? The more you ask yourself these questions, the more absurd it becomes to sit down and actually do it. Finally you just don’t do it anymore. You don’t write, and you stop feeling ridiculous. You feel better for a while, a couple of weeks, a couple of months. But while you just sit there and do nothing, the sense of worthlessness grows and grows until you’re an old bitter lady who hates everything and everyone (if you even make it to old age that is. You might not if your life doesn’t have any meaning, any purpose).

This is my solution: I still do it. Even thought I feel like a fucking idiot for imagining that anything of quality will come out of it, I do it. If I fail, I want to fail as an artist. I don’t want to die of grief, and fail at being a human being, but I can accept to fail as a writer. At least I’m a writer. A failed writer is still a writer. A kind of writer anyway.

I try. I fail immensely all the time, but I try again. And while trying, I keep being a student of the concept of failure. I guess I’d like to try to understand why people end up like me. What the fuck happened? I was such as successful child, such a successful student, before fear got the best of me.

I’ve been wanting to read about Alice James (the younger sister of Henry James) for a long time. I’m attracted to all sorts of tragic figures, especially women. I want to study them, study their lives, study their minds, to figure out what happened to them so that I can avoid ending up like them. On my summer reading list I have put “Alice James – A Biography” by Jean Strouse, and I just started reading it this morning. After the first chapter I had to get up and write this, because what I read sounded so familiar to me. It’ll probably be a painful, but important read. I feel a lot of love and compassion for her, and a lot of rage when I think of all her unused potential.

As I’ve already said several times, I don’t give a shit about succeeding in the official sense of the word. I don’t necessarily need to publish or make an album. I do need, however, to succeed at living a life where reading, writing and music has enough space to flourish and nurture my soul. That’s the only life I know how to live. It’s the only life I feel is worth living. If I’m able to use some of the potential hiding inside of me as well, that’s a bonus, but first of all the goal is this: To feel good about myself, so that I can love others, and contribute positively to their lives. And then I want to die feeling like I’ve lived, not feeling like I’ve spent my life hiding and excusing myself for existing.

Now, let me get back to my book, and that big cup of exquisite green tea waiting beside me. This rainy Sunday has just started, and I mean to enjoy it to the best of my ability.

Alice James

Alice James (1848 –1892)

 

Late Night Thoughts

Photo by Emmet Gowin

Photo by Emmet Gowin

I don’t live in my country, I left. I cannot bear the thought of ever living there again. My little town is beautiful, but it is full of all the things that makes me remember that I’m a failure. Also my parents are there, and they are too much to handle on a permanent basis. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, but I cannot stand their eyes on me all the time, the way they scrutinise my every move, my every choice.

I love hiding down here on the continent. It allows me to live and to breathe. If I’d stayed home I don’t know what would have happened. Best not to think of that.

Being far from home helps me dull the shame I feel almost every second of the day. Sometimes I feel like I should get into a fight with, and wrestle my shame, until it lies there dead on the ground. But then I get worried about thinking violent thoughts, and decide to stroke it until it purrs and falls asleep in my lap again. Oh god, let it sleep for a while this time.

The idea of doing something cutesy and perfect just to be accepted puts me off. It’s not like I’d want to shit or self mutilate or fuck on stage, but I would want to wear leather and scream and bang my head in a Polly Jean kind of way. And then I want to pick up my guitar and sing “The Lady” like Sandy Denny. I want to move through the spectrum of all my colors.

The other day I went to a gallery, and saw some photographs by Emmet Gowin. In one of the photos his wife was standing in a barn pissing on the floor. I am in awe of that kind of shamelessness of expression. Gowin photographing his wife is the truest art I have seen in years. I went through the exhibition three times.

Sometimes I’d like to just not give a fuck, but I’m worried that I’ll go to far. I have no sense of proportion. Maybe that’s why I’m not a real artist. I worry too much. About everything.

One day I’d like to go home to my little town, lift my skirt up and piss in front of them all.