Is This Failure?
While house- and pet-sitting in a tucked-away place in the Lake District, I’ve been reading a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters, and it, coupled with our slow-traveling situation, has had me thinking about failure — what it is, whether I’ve found it, or whether, in fact, it’s something which one achieves only when one has succumbed to it. In other words, is it possible that failure cannot be put upon a person but is, rather, a garment with which one can only clothe one’s self?
At the very time of writing this post I should be leading a writing workshop in Lancaster, just outside the Lake District, in Lancashire.
But I cancelled the workshop due to an insufficient number of bookings. And we’ve had to do the same with our other planned workshops for the Lake District. Although in the life of an independent educator — just as with university professors — there are always some workshops and courses which don’t make, the canceling of all these workshops during our house/pet-sit here in Cumbria is a new phenomenon for my partner, Mufidah, and me. Minimal lead times to promote the workshops upon our arrival here was undoubtedly the key factor.
And while money is always tight for us — I won’t go into particulars, but you can get a sense here and here — things are particularly tight for us right now. But we’ve been here before, countless times, in fact. The phrase “running on empty” often comes to mind, such that there might one day be a book by that title. (Interested? Stay tuned of all such goings-on via my newsletter.)
Today is Saturday, 15 June. This house-sit ends on Monday the 17th. We arrive at our next one, in Scotland for three weeks, on Monday the 24th. At the time of writing, we have no idea where we’ll be laying our heads in between. Just as we didn’t know where we’d stay between leaving our hometown of Lewes and our previous house-sit just outside St Albans.
But the universe provided, just as it has provided on those countless other such occasions. And we have faith, too, though without any expectations whatsoever, that we’ll be provided for in a few days’ time.
Watching his life unfurl through the prism of his own words has been a rare, if sometimes disturbingly poignant, pleasure. Particularly so as they were penned, as letters are, in the present (or near present) rather than recollected and reconsidered from afar as is the case with retrospective autobiography. There’s an intimacy in reading his personal and professional correspondence which no after-the-fact account could ever touch as we witness Scott’s fame, and self-confidence, rocket to an almost unimaginable high as a young man only to plummet in the eyes of so many so soon afterwards as he struggled increasingly with the alcoholic habit he’d already begun at Princeton and which was perhaps exacerbated by the mutually destructive, and yet artistically fruitful, relationship between him and Zelda. A shared plummet which eventually led his wife to a string of mental institutions, and himself through a Sisyphean battle to, at once, stay financially afloat and well enough to write.
The battle was brought to a close upon his death, by heart attack, at 44 years of age. Zelda died seven years later in a hospital fire, locked in her room awaiting electroshock therapy.
And, so, was Fitzgerald a failure?
For certain, he was critical of himself. And he held regrets for not having seized more moments, sooner, to secure the success he achieved early on — by writing novels, literature, rather than the commercial short stories and Hollywood screenplays which just barely paid the bills and sent him scurrying from editor to agent to friend, asking for their help to carry him until his next story was sold or screenwriting gig arose. To be accurate, Fitzgerald distinguished between loans he requested throughout his career from his editor and agent, which he considered business loans, and those he requested from friends and which came late in his life, when he was struggling to pay Zelda’s hospital bills and to keep his daughter, Scottie, in college. These debts, he knew, would pressure him to write commercial rather than literary works.
But he didn’t give in despite incessant illness, alcohol addiction and a declining popularity amongst editors. On the contrary, his correspondence shows a determination that I can only marvel at given all that he was facing. Something of Scott’s boyish optimism and the ability to stir the imagination into new story ideas survived right up to the end.
Surely no one who knows of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary output — including This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, not to mention countless bestselling stories — while knowing nothing of the details of his life would consider him a failure. Yet not even the The Great Gatsby was a financial success in Fitzgerald’s time. That overwhelming success came posthumously, as it so often does.
But how many of us, if we were privileged to have been able to watch Fitzgerald’s life unfold in real time, might well have deemed him a has-been, we sitting in judgement of a man who had become an easy target, an opportunity seized even by his old friend Hemingway whom Fitzgerald had done much to bring to Scribner, and, specifically, to Max Perkins?
How many of us would have shrink-wrapped with the word failure one of the 20th century’s greatest writers had we been contemporary with him, thereby, knowing far more of his falterings in the public eye than of his epic struggle to succeed?
More to the point, who is anyone to squeeze anyone else into the ill-fitting box of failure?
I’d suggest that failure can only be assigned by the one who has deemed himself to have been so. And even then it’s very likely to be a hasty and wildly inaccurate assessment. We human-being folk are infamously bad judges of even our own failings, so ingrained is our habit to home in on, and exaggerate, the negative rather than to see the countless ways in which we’ve positively touched others’ lives.
Yet even if one deems oneself a failure — and says, or hints at, as much in the company of others — the latter overstep the bounds of good grace and human endeavor when they attempt to say as much on another’s behalf.
To admit of one’s own falterings, even if we cast them in language as failings, and to be able to find the humor as well as the tragedy in life not only requires insight and courage, the very act of humbling one’s self, particularly in writing, is indicative of a person who rises above rebuke by another. Those, on the other hand, who stand ever ready to admonish are like vultures awaiting easy prey, while the larger, more humble person rises like a phoenix in comparison.
On October 5, 1940, two-and-a-half months before he died, Fitzgerald wrote the following in a letter to his daughter, Scottie, who was studying at Vassar College and shortly to turn 19 years of age:
Once one is caught up into the material world not one person in ten thousand finds the time to form literary taste, to examine the validity of philosophic concepts for himself, or to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call the wise and tragic sense of life.
By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare’s to Abraham Lincoln’s, and as far back as there are books to read — the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not “happiness and pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle. Having learned this in theory from the lives and conclusions of great men, you can get a hell of a lot more enjoyment out of whatever bright things come your way.
Clearly Fitzgerald understood that struggle is not failure but, rather, the stuff of which life is made. Indeed, struggle — including the Socratic challenge to examine one’s own self — is what makes life meaningful, and enjoyable.
Since embarking upon this post on Saturday, 15 June, Mufidah and I were offered a place to stay in Edinburgh from Wednesday, the 19th through Monday, the 24th. We then had the good fortune to find a CouchSurfing host for the one remaining night, Tuesday, the 18th. And, so, we’ll be here in Edinburgh until the start of our next house- and pet-sit in Fife next Monday.
Sean M. Madden is a writer, photographer and slow-traveling digital nomad. He’s also Co-Founder & CEO of CreativeThunder.co, working with creative businesses and individuals, worldwide, to build tribes of loyal customers via strategic websites and visual storytelling. Interested? Click here.