Thursday, March 28, 2013


How to Fail for a Month, Year, or Decade and Be Okay

I've been a published fiction writer for the past 12 years and haven't published a new book in 10 of those, which is not to say I haven’t written more material, it’s just that everything I write is consistently, unanimously rejected. I don't normally advertise this information, but it's routinely extracted from me. In bars, at dinner parties, even minding my own business on airplanes or among close friends — everyone wants to give me advice. Maybe you should become a schoolteacher? A paralegal? How about a nurse? A nurse in a psych ward? 

Because advice-giving can be contagious — once you get some, you really want to give some — I find myself making mental lists for my fellow Failures. I mean, how do you survive this constant kick and punch? Would ‘Leave me the fuck alone!’ be a good response?" you ask.

Certainly. But who wants to be the ill-behaved, warlike Failure? Better to be the self-possessed, stately Failure, no?

In any case, here are some basic thoughts to get you through:


Yes, a few more days. Even if last year you thought your Failure term was over, for very strong reasons, and then strangely, inexplicably, you remained in office, you must try to con yourself into believing “only a few more days now.” That, of course, doesn’t mean you state this claim to other people, ever. This is for you and only you.

How exactly do you trick your mind into thinking this? By continuously working, certainly. But also by continuously seeking out opportunities, even harebrained long shots, that on a given day, with a given weather pattern, make you feel immensely alive and hopeful.

(Much like the sensation of falling in love, if the aforementioned feeling could be bottled and sold, a whole legion of addicts would emerge, one of whom would surely be that drone who questioned your sanity at the dinner party. She’d gouge her own eyes out just to get it, if she’d ever tasted it, which of course she has not.) 


I don’t mean enroll in a PhD program or a nursing school or an air conditioning repair course. My advice is mainly to focus on something that's interesting or intimidating, something that seems worthwhile but doesn’t make you drift off course. Why? Because learning makes you feel confident, it shows you that nothing can be learned without a mistake, and you’ll never advance faster in a given subject than when you know nothing about it in the first place.

Your Failure status contains certain luxuries in this arena as well. The bar is low, if not invisible. If you’d already won an Oscar, you’d feel even more uncomfortable initiating that class at the Groundlings. It would be … beneath you?

Not so, when you’re already an underling. So explore.


Nobody likes this one. They think it’s mumbo jumbo. “How can I worry about strangers when I’m really worried about myself?”

Regardless, your sorry ass needs to know that a person living in the Third World would never watch your biopic and think, wow, the turmoil. They would think: Wow, look at this spoiled jackass drinking a martini, complaining to her friends, and then hailing a limousine (cab) to take her home to her personal warehouse where she’ll stay up all night perusing her hand-held computer for a new pair of jeans. And, goddamn it, where are her kids?

“Yeah, okay,” you say, “but how do I volunteer in the Third World when I live in L.A.?”

Personally I think these two places share much in common, but the main point is that you need to have some kind of experience with problems that are larger than getting a better commercial agent or a new lead singer. It’s certainly fun to wallow in how sad your life is compared to the crowd at Cipriani’s, but honestly their piece of the pie chart is a scatter of crumbs. It’s even arguable that volunteering might also give you some loftier fantasies for what you’re going to do, and who you want to help, when you finally succeed.  In a few more days.


This might be just for writers, entrepreneurs, and other desk-sitters, as those of you who are musicians, actors, and comedians go out into the world regularly and show your lovely legs.

I must admit that writing, in particular, is a pretty sad-sack art. Most of the work is done in a secluded room and most of it stays in a secluded room. I’ve even met people who seem to suspect that I don’t write at all — it’s just a fake thing I say I do, or a thing I used to do long ago. Part of me doesn’t blame them. I don’t have a painting I can show them, a photo I can email them, a commercial they can YouTube. And even if those people did see what I was up to and praised it, I’d be bored. Immediate gratification isn’t exactly about other people. It’s about proving it to yourself, that you're in it to win it, and that you can win it. Showing your talent to the world, or some baby microcosm of it, matters. If that means teaching your talent, even if it offers the worst conditions, the most broken down classrooms, the moodiest of audiences, some of whom might be criminals or sociopaths, do it. You’ll feel amazing.


This includes friendships, too. Personally, I have something dirty and survivalist in me, so I’m pretty good with this. (Although I feel guilty for all eternity afterward, but that’s a side issue.) Self-loathing is a byproduct of regret, and Failure naturally contains a healthy dose of self-questioning. No matter how pliable your work hours are, no one who truly cares about you should interfere with them. And if they do, you will be the only one to pay for it.


What kind of shitty people? The ones that say, “So are you still writing? Acting? Competitive eating?” The ones who say it with an intonation of incredulity, the ones who treat anything you’ve ever achieved as something distant, small, or lackluster. The ones who mention someone else who’s doing everything you do better at a younger age with more money to show for it. This person is shitty — far, far shittier than the dude who stole your purse or ransacked your bank account or forgot to tell you he was cheating on you. You wouldn’t hang out with the purse thief or the identity thief or the heart thief, so why are you hanging out with the good-vibes thief?

Avoid him. Keep your prized feelings in a safe. Lock your windows and doors. If he still appears, through an air vent or forgotten crawl space, inform him that you are feeling murderous. And be compelling.


So I wouldn’t include this if I were talking to a youth group, but we’re adults, and a passing wave of bad behavior is frankly a Failure’s friend. No matter how stalwart your spirit, it's unlikely that you'll keep your shit together all the time. Something will trip you up and no amount of yoga, meditation, or specially spaced out breathing will help.

“Getting High” in this sense does not necessarily involve inhalants or a pipe. It means shopping for clothes you can’t afford on your credit card. (I said it was bad behavior.) It means going somewhere with someone you’re not so sure is a good idea. It means getting drunk, losing your shoe, shattering your phone, or waking up with a younger man, an older man, a girl, or in a pool of glitter. And some of you may tragically believe that no one wants to sleep with a Failure, but I’m here to tell you that the Good-Vibes Thief would sleep with you in a heartbeat. So would the airplane passenger with oodles of advice and the naysayer at the dinner party. Failures are passionate and zesty. Failures have things to talk about. Failures aren’t so self-satisfied that they don’t try in bed, or elsewhere. They also look younger and more fresh-eyed than their counterparts because success restricts sleep.

Success actually restricts everything. You’ll have less time, less solitude, less exercise. Phones will ring, people will pester. So why not delight in the fleeting pleasure of Failure? After all, you only have a few more days.


Christina Fitzpatrick is the author of the novel 'What's the Girl Worth?' and the short story collection 'Where We Lived.' She is the recipient of a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and is currently at work on a novel. 

65 Comments / Post A Comment

Story #2

I'm not a failure, dammit. I'm a *cult artist.*

It's a small cult.


No Kidding.... Amazing!@t

Katie Walsh



Well this is relevant to my interests. Personally I've been focusing hardcore on Rules 4 and 7, largely in the form of eating shit-tons of sodium and shopping at Goodwill way to much. I've tried the others, but I can't really see the point anymore. In every other area of life doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results is the definition of insanity. I don't know if I have another regrouping, restrategizing fresh start "now I'll apply to THREE jobs every day and make ANOTHER website/portfolio and learn Java!" in me. I prefer my own Rule 8: Attain emotional catharsis by constantly constructing elaborate revenge fantasies about people who refused to give you a job.

Sunny Schomaker

@YoungLeafedJune I love your Rule 8. Maybe I should listen to my mother and start watching Revenge for some tips.


The Hairpin is reading my mind today. First, the sun was shining for a few hours already once I woke up. But it's ok, because I was readily supplied with the coping mechanisms to deal with failure. (Ok, despite the tinge of sarcasm, thank you for this Christina Fitzpatrick, I really needed it today.)


In my experience, the best way to not fail is to never try.

If, for some reason, you masochistically insist on attempting to...."achieve things" (ugh, what a disturbing prospect), to which I would say that this is quite lovely advice, and I might even expand the final point to:

Cultivate vices. Plural. Mine personally are cigarettes, brown liquor, 90's R&B fuck music, women who don't love me back, and oyster lunches taken far beyond the point of fiscal reasonability. You can find the mix that works best for you - but please do make it a mix. This way, when forced to cut back on one when you find yourself (to make myself an example) either bronchial or broke, you can simply increase your indulgences in another field.

Carpe YOLO.


@leon s D'Angelo on repeat, most days.

tea sonata

@leon s Aah, yes, thank you.


@leon s
Thank you for this! I have definitely been focusing too much on women who don't love me back and not enough on brown liquor. (seriously. so, so seriously.)


@leon s And remember, if you do try, don't try too hard. Then when you fail, you can shrug and say, "It's not like I put that much effort into it."

You will drown in mediocrity, but at least you'll never embarrass yourself by failing.


Rule 5 is pretty rough if you're married (and you probably won't stay married too long, which will give you some new things to worry about).

Rule 6 is my breaking point. I have so many shitty people in my life--but I guess they're shitty in different ways: non-reciprocal friendships, people who are inconsiderate of my time, people who are straight up selfish. I purge one here and there but it does make for lonliness and rough times. And if I truly followed number 5 I'd be a pretty shitty friend myself...Not sure what the solution to that part is.

I have a lot of experience in failure :( I can only condense my response to: dust it off and keep moving no matter what.

RK Fire

@parallel-lines Channel sharks: can't stop moving or else you'll die? o_O

fondue with cheddar

OMG I haven't even read this yet but based upon the title alone this is So Relevant to My Fucking Interests.

Ice Cream Castle

Thank you for writing this, Ms. Fitzpatrick. I have been failing for a while at my Ph.D project. Although I love it, and I work on it all of the time, I don't have anything to show for all of the love and all of the work. I just . . . don't. So I have nothing to answer the constant refrain, "Aren't you finished YET?" or "How much longer?"

Sunny Schomaker

@Ice Cream Castle Word. (See below.)

fondue with cheddar

@Ice Cream Castle Ugh, those are such horrible things for people to say. I'm sorry.


@Ice Cream Castle Yep, that's me, too.

Sunny Schomaker

Oh man, this hits particularly close to home, as I sit alone in my office (during Spring Break), trying to work and just thinking, "@%*& it."

My current failures include such highlights as an inability to get started on my dissertation because I've been turned down by every possible site, being rejected by someone (who finds pining for the woman who's rejecting him preferable to going out with me), being rejected for jobs (in case I have to drop out of grad school because it took me over a year to develop this study and the real and opportunity costs of spending another year in poverty developing another study), and other assorted indignities that arise from these failures.

I am going to indulge in Rule 7 next week by spending money I can ill afford on a day trip to get the hell outta Dodge, even if just for a day.


An addendum to Rule 6: Watch out for people who are trying to do what you're doing, but don't believe anymore. A lack of enthusiasm is contagious and let's in all of the the judgey feelings out there (and in there).


@MrComment GOD YES. I live overseas and the expat scene here is so damn jaded and negative that it really affects your state of mind. Most locals I know seem to feel much the same way these days :(((

fondue with cheddar

Oh man, this post is a keeper. I'm absolutely terrible when it comes to #1, but at least I'm great at #6 (which took a long time to learn) and #7 (which I did this morning when I spent my last few dollars on an asiago bacon egg & cheese and strawberry scone at Panera).

Go away, full moon!


@fondue with cheddar Dear god, those Panera breakfast paninis. My weakness is the Mediterranean egg white sandwich, sometimes with bacon. The spinach and tomatoes and melty cheese! Anyway, yes.

I also started smoking pot again two weekends ago and life improved by approximately 255764357899% instantly.

fondue with cheddar

@sox I've always wanted to try that sandwich but I'm not a fan of tomatoes. The asiago one is on a bagel that has crispy asiago cheese on top of it!

Pot, hooray! I really need to smoke some this weekend.

tea sonata

AHH. Yes. Now I don't feel so bad for taking time for myself. IT IS ALLOWED, I'M SURE OF IT. Stupid school/family obligations/career-forging.
Why taking a break is failure in my head, I will never know. I just have to make sure I don't turn this into another To-Do list and then we'll be just peachy.


Thank you for writing this. I really needed to read this today.

In the vein of the shitty people rule, I would also say, "Don't Talk About Anything Until You Finish It." And "it" could be a specific project or a larger career goal, like "making money writing." I've learned this the hard way. Most people are not going to understand what you're doing or how long it will take to get there, nor will they understand why you're not going to just give up when it doesn't happen in a year. And it's annoying to have to hear "So, how's the writing going?" year after year at family parties, because sometimes it won't be going so well and even if it IS going well, they're still probably not going to get it.

RK Fire

@supernintendochalmers I get this, but what do you talk about then? How do you let them know what meaningful things are going on in your life?


@RK Fire Yeah, this is tough because you run the risk of isolating yourself, which is something I've done for extended periods of time. I think the key is to be comfortable with the uncertainty yourself. People selfishly want your life to make sense to them so they don't have to worry about you too much. They're always looking for some kind of linear solution which is counteractive to creative or entrepreneurial pursuits. Your attitude has to be, "This is what I'm doing, and it's the best way for me to do it."

Then you need other people around you who can understand that your life will take a different shape from anyone else's; that sometimes you need to go draw pictures of trees for a while to be a better writer.


@RK Fire True, true. I guess it's more about the distinction between your friends who are supportive and get it and other people in your life who don't. Hopefully you have people you trust who you can open up to. There's also the difference between telling someone you're working on a novel and laying out the whole plot for them, which can invite unwanted opinion. But that's just my means of self-protection.

RK Fire

@MrComment @supernintendochalmers Thanks for the responses! This is just something I've been mulling over a lot; my husband and I are both at points in our so-called careers where things feel so tenuous and elusive. I've gotten to a point where I feel like I'm spinning lies or lying by omission about ideas or projects that I'm excited about but just starting out on, just because I don't want to disappoint myself or other people. I also find myself trying to put a happy spin on things, so people don't worry about me. This is coinciding with the fact that I'm realizing that myself and my friends from my early-20s may be becoming increasingly distant from one another, which has been disconcerting too..


I wish the volunteering thing was something I'd taken to heart in my 20s.

RK Fire

Considering the "About you" section on my facebook says "I have unrealistic expectations of myself in the hopes that I will eventually meet them," I find this post strangely reassuring, both in it's content and the fact that everyone else is coming out and saying how much it helps.


This was a wonderful pick-me-up! I'm inspired to start a Failures Support Group where we can give each other hugs and share the interesting non-failure related things we've done recently.

lucy snowe

@Kri Except I might worry I don't have enough to say.

Sorry. Spent part of today talking to my folks, who are confirmed shitty people. They pretty much only want to hear about me and my family in terms of a list of accomplishments they find impressive enough to share with their friends.

Your idea is great. I would totally join.


I needed this. I just finished grad school and I don't know what the fuck I'm doing.

lucy snowe

@themlemons But you finished. That is awesome.



Part of me wants to take umbrage with the use of "the Third World" and the projecting you're doing there, but fuck it.

The other part of me wants everyone reading this in DC to come tutor with me. Volunteering (especially, I think, tutoring/mentoring) is really great when you feel like you're failing not only for the reasons listed above, but also because it forces you to concentrate on someone else and their issues for a little while, and gets you completely out of your own head. There is also, at least with tutoring, a measure of feeling like you've accomplished something, when your kid passes a level or you can tell her reading's improved or whatever. If you feel like your life is full of fail, this can count for A LOT.

Anyway, yes, volunteer.


@cherrispryte Ahaha, dude thank you! I can't even start with that bit, so I won't.

But yeah, tutoring! I did it for awhile (but cannot deal with more people on top of dealing with people for work, so now I do the animal shelter thing to get my volunteer fuzzies) and it was so freaking rewarding that you might as well put it in the instant gratification section, except for the parts that are really hard and neither instant, nor gratifying.


Just leaving my usual lurking to add that this post hit very close to home today.

I've been "failing" for almost a year now and it just feels so damn hard to work on #1 and #4. I'm a profession where I can work and work and work alone at my desk but it's the whole seeking out opportunities parts (the networking, the email cold calls, the having a social media presence) I find profoundly paralyzing. What to do?

Adult Footie Pajamas

@MayaPB Does your industry have any sort of networking events with booze? That's how Mr. Pajamas got his developer job and how I found a writers' community. Go to the things. Even if you just smile alone in the corner, it's good practice. But be strategic, you know? If you're a writer, go to readings of authors like you, because they will draw other authors like you, and then your social capital will be worth more.


@Adult Footie Pajamas Thanks for the reply. I'm a freelance designer trying to break into the studio world. I've definitely been trying to hit up more industry events but unfortunately there aren't a lot of socializing events I can find that mix freelancers like myself with studio folks. It's all very formalized talks. Plus to say that designers are judgmental would be an understatement (everyone has a million opinions on everyone else's work) so just handing out business cards can feel like a interview. Of course I'm sure a big part is my own anxieties, just have the face the music even if I don't have the letterpress everything and book bound portfolio.


Last week I finally got a job after six months of faaaailure which, combined with moving ELEVEN TIMES in SIX MONTHS, had been threatening to bring me down. I did every single one of these things, especially #1 and #7, and it fucking WORKED! You can do it, babies, just keep trying. What helped a lot was "keep solid work hours" and allow yourself to be free after your work hours. After 5 PM, dammit, my job hunt was done. I got drunk with friends, learned to play Settlers of Catan, started watching Friday Night Lights at last, all sorts of things to keep me occupied. Just keep moving through it.

lucy snowe

@Diana Congratulations on your new job! That's fantastic!


... but what if everyone you know is shitty?



Cutivate New Vices as recommended above... become a regular at a Karaoke bar, take up stitch and bitch knitting group, join a bowling league. Pot?
You can pick your own poison


@whimsy ha! I'll take all of the above :)

the angry little raincloud

@OooYeahAboutThat... @whimsy Do NOT underestimate the awesomeness of the people you meet at karaoke bars, by which I mean the ones who are having fun and aren't all grumpy because they're at a karaoke bar.

It really is a little place of heaven on earth. You can get knock down drunk, make a complete and utter ass of yourself (or have people bow down at your feet and praise you as the kick ass mofo you truly are), and very likely have extremely inappropriate sex.

I really, really like karaoke.

Can you tell I am a big proponent of Rule #7?


just created an account to say, oh, I needed this today...


@Diana seriously, this has been the hardest lesson about extended under/unemployment. if i'm not careful, everything stretches into an endless gaping chasm of job searching and headaches.

lucy snowe

I don't have the right words to express how much I connected to this article.

If I did, maybe I wouldn't be a failure.

Eh. I'm digging my way out. It's only been a few years. And now that I know I only have to put up with this feeling a few more days, well...

Also- those shitty people are the worst. Unfortunately, most of them are in my family, so they're hard to avoid entirely.

Dirty Hands

Just when I needed it!

Magic Markers

Oh, thank goodness for this article today.


Yes. Me too. Published a real novel with a real publisher in 2000. Since then, random internet writing, a couple of short stories, made Best Food Writing in 2010. As I told my high school reunion pals, "oh yeah, I'm still writing. I'm just not publishing much." I'd feel worse, but it seems like every writer I know is in the same boat.


this is everything i needed today. especially #6


Where was this article in 2010!?! After finishing my undergrad at the age of 27 (travel and living the beachy San Diego life got me to college "late", Roller Derby prolonged the college lifestyle), upon graduation I was SURE I would land The Job, and finally be able to catch up with my other friends in Life. Guess what? I have failed--I am working now (after a year and a half of underemployment livin' with Ma in a seasonal tourist trap hell--love you Mom!), in my field, for shite $, with a bunch of scumbags that have major issues with HARD WORKING WOMEN. BUT-----every single day I try to make a step toward SOMETHING new. The Job. I also indulge in all of these and have been working on #6 A LOT. And am grateful I am off the Sand Bar where Mom lives.
reading this made me feel VAILIDATED.

To all you failures out there, you are winning.



@SaltyAly all the hurrahs to you and your persistence!

mari d

this was very, very funny.

Sam I am

What if #6 is your family? How do you disengage without making a mess of everything?


nice. in 2009 i graduated with a journalism degree and moved joblessly to new york city in the world's worst time for journalism. after 2 months of rejection i felt like a total failure... especially when i was getting concerned about my ability to buy a 99-cent roll of bodega toilet paper, let alone pay my rent. then i started working for free -- aka rule #3-- doing PR for a music management company (not like an internship in anyway, and perhaps kind of exploitative and illegal, but hey! read on). through that i learned the fundamentals of being a non-annoying PR rep-- aka rule #2--and got a real paying gig at a marketing agency. and through that PR job i'm now writing for a magazine i used to pitch to after befriending one of the editors. voila! plus a healthy regimen of avoiding shitting people and getting high, too, of course. i think #5 and #6 are kind of two arms of the same beast.


I frittered away my time as a new fellowship recipient driving around the country in a truck; I worked minimum wage in every job, swallowed writers block and fed it to a turtle in my stomach; I drove all around a city in the truck teaching grimy children to slap piano keys and draw arrows in long division; I worked in North Dakotan oil fields, I fell apart and got drunk every day. I left, I started getting a joke associate's that's very legal-y and feminine where I learn to be told what to do and listen politely. I got a job with a couple of weirdos who now are paying me really well and encouraging me to look into "publicity and PR." I'm bored and I've let the turtle starve. All I want is to buy a van I can live in, drive wherever I want, paint houses for gas money every now and then or sing on the street.

In case I'm not being clear the turtle is a metaphor, please no one think I starved a turtle.


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