The Museum of Failure 2

Ruled by the clock, I do not write well to the notion I have only a small parcel of time before I must advance onto the next project. It adds to my list of inadequacies, which weigh heavily at the moment. A failure to write as I imagine others do, even when I know they don’t. To write effortlessly and produce startling results from the depths of my imagination. Instead my mind skims the surface for what’s happening in my life. 

To go deeper needs boundless time, to muse, to let my mind wander. I have read many a fiction writer argue the need to lose yourself, to go into that liminal space that is neither here nor there. 

Even last night’s dreams evade me from the instant I opened my eyes. And although it’s still early morning, still dark in this household, the meanderings of my dreams have escaped into my clumsy thoughts of the day ahead. A day with a deadline and a workshop that begins at 8.00 am sharp, during which I will communicate through zoom with seven other people, six of whom (including me) will workshop their writing, and six of whom live in various places scattered throughout the United States of America. 

The workshoppers live in places whose names are familiar to me, Chicago, Iowa, Tucson and outskirts of Philly, as in Philadelphia. Although I am far away from these people, I sense a connection through our interest in writing and also six of our lot are women. 

As usual, I’m the oldest. I tell myself this does not matter. It should not matter but in my floating mind of comparisons it does. 

It is the deepest hazard in a writers’ life to go into the pit of self-criticism, into the museum of failure, but I find myself here again whenever I encounter a new group of writers and begin again the journey of figuring out where I belong in my imagined pecking order.

There is no actual pecking order but growing up with eight siblings, I veer towards it fast. I veer towards questions such as how we are going? Should I say something? Should I keep my mouth shut? And what of what I say?

 Ever since the days of the analysts I have fears for my behaviour in groups. 

When one of the unknown analysts critiqued my behaviour during my analytic training and said I had a habit of saying things that shut the group down. This knowledge came to me as feedback from my mentor. 

At the time, he told me I should not take this feedback too seriously. After I had asked who said this, and could I speak to them. Could I get some clarity on how it was the things I said things shut down the group? 

He claimed not to know. ‘It’s early days,’ he said. ‘Feedback is often like this, in the early days.’ 

Then why offer it?

Still, I preferred some feedback relative to another colleague who said there was none for her. No one critiquing her performance during the training though she was critical of theirs as was I. 

We both entered the museum of failure as failures. We each were asked to leave the training. And to this day the residue of those criticisms, the idea that I say things in groups whereby I shut the group down hangs heavily. Especially when my conscious thought is one of wanting to get the group talking. 

As it was in my family. Channelling my mother. She loved nothing more than to have us all seated in the loungeroom in a circle around the low coffee table. A plate of biscuits doing the rounds, handed from one person to the next, or one of us going around the room to offer each in turn a biscuit to accompany the tea or coffee we drank every day more often than was wise. 

But these gatherings happened rarely and only on Sundays or after we grew into adults and came home to visit. Then no matter how many of us there were, my mother ushered us from the kitchen where we preferred to mingle into the lounge room where my father sat. 

He rarely entered the kitchen when I was a child except to tell one or another of us off for some misdemeanour, or to tell my mother her food was inedible. I have almost no memory of him in the kitchens of my adolescence though he was there at the head of the table in the Camberwell house when I was small. 

A dark brooding presence. He said things that stopped the conversation. Perhaps it was this trait in me, handed down from father to daughter that the analysts detected. Someone who said things that were so shocking they stopped people in their tracks. That upset people into speechless silence. 

4 thoughts on “The Museum of Failure 2”

  1. What does it mean to be a writer? Or maybe I mean what does it take to be a writer? There must be a checklist, the minimum requirements necessary, which, I suspect, most writers meet easily and painlessly and yet we still look in the mirror and wonder if a Writer is looking back at us. Of course what we’re really wondering is if we’re a decent writer, even a half-decent one. It’s hard to imagine a plumber or a carpet-fitter going through such anguish. Ah, but they’re content with simply being productive as opposed to creative. Maybe. But surely there’s an art to most things, even plumbing and carpet-fitting. I’m riddled with self-doubt. I have no reason. All I have to do is look at the poems I’ve written over the last years and there’s not a stinker among them. And yet all I can see is the poem on my desktop I’ve been staring at for the last fortnight and can’t find any joy in. I mean I will finish it, one way or another, one day or another, and Carrie will give me her seal of approval, it’ll go in the big red folder and I’ll look through my drafts for the next one. A postmodern Sisyphus, that’s me. Surely others don’t go through this. Only from all accounts they do but, like me, they do it in private and all we ever get to see are the finished, polished results.

    I saw a film a while back, ‘Final Portrait.’ The premise: In 1964, while on a short trip to Paris, the American writer and art-lover James Lord is asked by his friend, the world-renowned artist Alberto Giacometti, to sit for a portrait. The process, Giacometti assures Lord, will take only a few days. It does not. The only way Lord can get Giacometti to stop is to tell him he’s leaving for New York. The artist’s response? “Oh, well; that’s too bad. We’ve gone far. We could’ve gone further, but we’ve gone far.” In a letter he said how much he’d enjoyed painting Lord and hoped he’d come back soon so they could start all over again. I suppose I should’ve found some cold comfort in that or in Valéry’s remark that a poem is never finished, only abandoned but here’s the thing: I so want to finish a poem and be finished with it and know it’s finished.

    Deadlines I generally have no problem with. I neither hate them or love them. Except when it comes to writing. Tell me I’ve got a week to finish a piece of work and I’d spend every waking moment working on it and still not get it finished, not finished finished. I might get it to the it’ll do stage but I wouldn’t be happy.

    1. I tend to finish things, Jim, and I’m not so much the perfectionist that I can’t let them go sometimes even before they’re ready. That said, like you, from time to time, I still agonise over the process. Thanks, Jim

  2. Dear Elisabeth,
    You know, the first thought that comes to mind about your so-called mentor is that he didn’t follow what would be the usual way to deliver a critique these days. He didn’t give you praise for what you did well (or if he did, it can’t have been very warm, or you would remember this more vividly, I bet). He didn’t *ask you* where you felt you might benefit from improvement, or what you were finding more difficult.
    I know we don’t know each other well, but we’ve met and chatted at your book launch in Brisbane, and I’ve read with interest many of your kind and insightful comments on social media. Never have I had the thought that your conversation had the effect of shutting others down.
    I often think that when someone gives very unkind feedback, or is hurtful like this ‘mentor’ was (surely he knew his words would be distressing?), it says much more about the person giving the feedback. Their secret delight in hurting, their love of power, even their jealousy in some cases.
    I hope you can shove that silly man’s comments away because I think he was just plain wrong, and all your suspicions are correct – if anything you facilitate others’ contributions, and you’re a lovely human being 🙂
    Hope your workshop went well, and warmest wishes to you,
    x Fiona

  3. My workshop went well in the end, Fiona, despite my apprehension. Thanks for your kind words here. I remember you well. I agree with you people can be cruel in strange ways and these comments came from someplace of distance and lacked all empathy. But hopefully, I’ve moved beyond such words now, even as the memory of them rears its head from time to time.

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