Monday, June 06, 2011

failure and fear of failure

by J J Cohen

My pedagogical credo includes a line about the classroom as a laboratory where we experiment and risk fucking up. No creative, theoretical, or scholarly project is sufficiently ambitious if it doesn't chance spectacular failure.

Embracing that risk, unfortunately, doesn't lessen failure's sting. I've been thinking about foundering a great deal today for several reasons: some problems I've run into as a mentor of graduate students; writer's block when it comes to completing my abecedarium for the elements (I've spent the morning agonizing over the thing; it fills me with dread); and a painful episode yesterday that tested my ability to be an adequate father.

My son and daughter study piano with the same teacher, and twice a year take part in a recital that demonstrates their mastery of a few short songs or one long one. The recitals include children as young as six (who are cute as they bang out their tunes) to seniors in high school (who are so impressive in their skill we sit in awe). Most of the performers are somewhere in between, and while small mistakes are plentiful, few dramatic failures occur. Unfortunately one of those involved my son Alex yesterday as he attempted to perform a rather complicated jazz piece. The drummer supposed to accompany him hadn't learn his portion, so was suddenly missing; Alex himself had not practiced enough, and was told by his teacher to omit a middle portion of the piece that seemed iffy.

He nervously texted me several times before his turn came, messages like "I am going to die" and "Do NOT video this w yr phone." His nervousness on stage was palpable. I could see him become increasingly agitated as the dropped portion of the song neared. When he reached its change of key, he froze, lost his place, attempted to find it, froze again, then brought the piece to a quick conclusion. I couldn't watch. I knew what he must be feeling. As he left the stage I tried to catch his eye, but he was trying to hold himself together and looked away.

Alex did a brave job of holding on at the reception following the recital, though I could tell he was close to tears. His teacher patted him on the shoulder and told him to let it go, that it happens to everyone. I could see that Alex didn't want to talk about it; it was too raw. So I didn't say anything. But later that evening, after we'd had dinner with another family and put some distance between us and the events of the day, I came into his room and shut the door. I asked him if we could talk about the recital. I was curious how he felt: did he think that we should just forget about what happened, or was there a lesson to learn, something useful to carry to the future? To his credit, Alex knew that there was at least one: that he'd waited too long to master the song, and so had gone into the recital not as well prepared as he should have. I suggested another: that at age 14 he is old enough to assert himself as a performer. If his teacher tells him to cut the middle of a piece just before a performance, and if he knows that cut will cause him to do a worse job, he has an obligation to tell the teacher that he knows what he is capable of, and that the segment needs to remain. Alex seemed cheered by this thought, that he could take more control of the situation than he suspected, that the world is more his to make than he realized, that he has grown up a bit more than he has given himself credit for.

I'm hoping that last night was a turning point.

With yesterday's recital in mind I turn back to my abecedarium. I suspect the reason I'm having such trouble with the piece -- besides the fact that it is a crazy task to have set myself -- is that I'm trying to fit my current thoughts into verses that I wrote almost a year ago, mostly while in Berlin. They don't speak to me any more, and much of what seemed fun about them then now seems gimicky. I'm thinking a few of the couplets will remain as a reminder of the genre, but others will yield to bare and unpoetic statements about what letter stands for what concept. I wrote recently about sending a gift to your future self by accomplishing work early, but in this case I seem to have special deliveried an albatross. Or maybe that is the gift: that I have enough time, still, to see the potential tyranny in the form I've adopted, to let go of fidelity, invent a little ... and maybe fail. But not, I hope, freeze, at least not without taking the clarity and bravery of my own child to heart.


prehensel said...

As a new(ish) Dad, know that I am paying close attention to posts and moments like these. Thanks for sharing.

ProMedievalist said...


Joseph Taylor said...

I second prehensel's comments. I love ITM for the great scholarly commentary it provides, but I also very much appreciate hearing about successful scholars who are successful parents as well. It's certainly not always easy to balance work and home but I have hope in part because of these posts. Thanks. On a side note, as a young and lone pianist on Easter Sunday in a packed church I turned the page to find the rest of the music not there. Everyone kept singing acapella (and staring at me) as I frantically flipped through my book wondering, in church, where the Hell the rest of the pages had gone. I feel his momentary pain.

Heide Estes said...

And I'll follow prehensel and Joseph Taylor in saying I, too, appreciate your scholarly musings and your comments on parenting.

Chris said...

I hope (and this may sound weird) that Alex also has a better sense of the contours of failure, so that he has a better sense of the sorts of risks he is really up against, and what is at stake (or, more importantly, not at stake) in failing.

As far as the abecedarium goes: The Oulipo concept of the "clinamen" (adapted from Lucretius), the voluntary error introduced to the strict ruleset to allow chance and/or spirit to enter the work, might help you solve your poetry problem. There might be some lines that you can edit into a shape you now like more, but also think about the decisive moment to break the rules that will cause the entire structure to open up, that will shatter the diamond into a million sparkling fragments.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks everyone: your positive comments mean a great deal to me. And Chris: I will take that to heart. Diamonds are out of the question but even shattered glass is sparkly.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I cry a little every time I read one of your dad posts, Jeffrey. In a good way, but there are still always tears and swallowing them back. I hope you write many, many more of them.

Anonymous said...

"the potential tyranny in the form I've adopted" - I'm living with a version of this right now, in promising an article only to return to the original work and found I'd, er, outgrown it? or something? I find it adolescent, and facile, and not really salvageable, and due next week. And as the parent of a teenage girl, I *also* find myself living with it there - astonished by the things I hear come out of my mouth in her hearing (like the above), the horrible things I say about my own work, or my own efforts, or my own flesh as it won't fit into 2009's "teaching clothes," or whatever. I hope I have had a few more moments like this one you've shared when talking to my own teenager than I think I have, and I hope she's getting less of the ruinous forms I seem to have internalized than I fear she is. I never *realized* what I sounded like until I could "hear" myself from her perspective, and realized that I would never tolerate someone talking to me like I talk to myself. I say Bravo for the timely intervention there - it is sad to see with how little grace some parents handle things like that.

And for reasons like this, I find parenting to be far more terrifying, on some level, than any other terrifying thing I've ever gotten through.

dtkline said...

Another wonderful post, Jeffrey, united the personal and professional in a lovely way. My slough is muskeg, an arctic bog land, where I've outgrown a project to which I've devoted too much time - as Karma intimates - while my boys are outgrowing their lives with me beautifully and confidently, though at a pace that I can't keep up with. Transitions can also be gifts to a future self, as can momentary defeats - but, as I saw from that wonderful photograph you posted - you still carry your son on your shoulders. I yearn for the moments when my boys will let me do that to them again, physically or metaphorically.

Your abecedarium will be a hard won triumph, and I've gotten great joy lately out of mowing the yard.