This Failure Isn’t Half Bad

The Dining Room Table as a Metaphor for Work

Mockingbird / 7.11.22

This article by Karen Stiller appears in the Success & Failure issue of The Mockingbird magazine.

On a recent winter day in Quebec, my friend, who was hosting us that night, purchased a raspberry pie, and forgot to bake it.

The remains of our delicately herbed, perfectly cooked chicken dinner had just been swept away into our host’s gorgeous kitchen when she brought out four wedges of pie. The slices were as pale as the moon and the white dessert plates she had set them on.

“Is this a special French pastry?” my husband asked.

“Yes,” she answered, “I suppose. I bought it at a French bakery.”

We ate a bite or two of the exotic dessert (soft, thicker than one would expect, not flaky) with tart, room-temperature raspberry filling.

“Does it taste a little doughy?” our hostess asked.

Whether it made me a good friend or bad would be for her to say, but I decided to give this excellent and experienced cook the truth. “I’m pretty sure it is dough,” I admitted.

Astonished, she said, “I didn’t bake the pie! Why didn’t they tell me to bake the pie?”

That was a question for the pâtisserie, and certainly not for anyone at the dinner table, especially not her now-chuckling husband.

I can report that while unbaked pie is unusual, it is not horrible. In solidarity with my friend, I ate every last bite. I sensed she was not as accustomed as I to these particular kinds of failures. She’s a skilled hostess, with art on the walls she painted herself. She dresses in linen tunics and lovely, dangly earrings. She follows recipes printed on glossy pages free of large, mustardy splotches and oily stains, from hardcover cookbooks that look perfect on a coffee table. This is not a kitchen where mishaps abound.

I grew even closer to my friend that night, thanks to that pie.

Our kinship grew not because of all that went right, but because of that one thing that went wrong. Anybody, after all, can stick a pie in an oven for 40 minutes. To serve it raw is a singular event. We will never talk about the fully cooked chicken. But we will laugh about the pie.

***

Fifteen months after my book was published, and 28 years after my husband Brent graduated from Regent College, we visited the college bookstore for only the second time since we had moved away from Vancouver. While Brent had studied there, I had worked in the admissions department. On my breaks, I would wander the bookstore as booklovers do, noses twitching, tails wagging.

“Do you think your book will be there?” Brent asked me.

“I’m not going to look for it,” I answered, bee-lining my way through the atrium. “If it is, it is. If it’s not, it’s not. I’m not getting caught up in that.” By then I had weaned myself off checking Amazon rankings so often, and had forgiven Margaret, who seemed like a nice lady, for her three-star rating on Goodreads.

I had worked hard — with Margo my spiritual director, my husband, and the penultimate chapter of Bird by Bird where Anne Lamott brilliantly unpacks the inevitable letdowns of publication — to reach this point of maturity and emotional equilibrium.

But when Brent said “It’s here!,” I felt as if gorgeous fireworks had exploded in my mind. My body warmed. My heart melted. Tears welled. There were four copies, right there on the shelf in front of me, yes, a little dusty on the top, but no matter. They were in Spirituality, nestled between A Man in Christ by James S. Stewart on one side and the beautiful Birthing Hope by Rachel Marie Stone on the other.

“Let’s get a picture,” my husband said, and so we did. I shared with the salesclerk that I was the author, just in case she wanted to know.

As I floated onto the #99 bus for our ride back to West Broadway, I said, “I’m so touched. This might be the high point for me of this whole book thing.”

It was a 20-minute ride or so back to the Holiday Inn, through light drizzle and heavy construction. Low clouds covered the high mountains that I knew were still out there somewhere, their peaks well hidden.

I wonder how long those books have sat there?
They will probably sit there forever.
They are just being kind to stock them.
They are only doing me a favor.
What is wrong with me?

I climbed off the bus, ready for a sad-nap. “I need to get off this emotional rollercoaster,” I announced to Brent, for the one hundredth time.

***

In Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words, authors Richard Hughes Gibson and James E. Beitler III urge writers (and this goes for anyone) to “acknowledge our work as a gift from God and give it back to him as an offering, letting it go in the hope that it might be used for his glory.” The work after our work is to cut ourselves off from caring so deeply about its success or failure. This alone can be as challenging as actually building the table, hatching the plan, or writing the song. But it’s a relief to remember that our creative endeavors come from God and are, in the end, for God.

“Enjoy getting there, versus what you think the end is going to give you. Thinking in that way is not so goal-orientated, or outcome-orientated,” suggests Scott Erickson, artist and author of Say Yes: Discover the Surprising Life Beyond the Death of a Dream.

I spoke with Scott, for a podcast I host, just a few weeks after his latest book was released. “I am in the post-book release lows,” he admitted. “When you release a book, you get really sad on the other side of it. It’s a weird thing, that finally this thing is over, but there’s a low on the other side. Maybe other authors who are really successful feel different. But for most of us, you hope your stuff will go everywhere, and it has its humble participation. But it’s never going to be what you hope it is.”

Even if we experience some level of success — if one or two of our hopes do come true — it’s likely that we will rain on our own parade through over-examination and second-guessing on the #99 bus. Our disappointments, though, can almost always be counted on for some kind of wisdom. They are mirrors. They are moments that we do not ask for, and would like to return with a “no thanks” card, but do offer a particular gift.

Our failures provide us an opportunity to see how tightly we might have clung to the wrong thing: which was success, or our preferred outcome, which we cannot control, instead of the process, which we can.

We can see how rigid our white-knuckled grip was on the way we thought things would and should be. We can see also how tender we still are, and maybe a little needy. Failure is an invitation to trust and risk again, and another opportunity to decide to keep working. Failure is mirror first, then window, to help us look ahead to what comes next. What is out there waiting for us now?

“I sit at my desk,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, “and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done,” which is the best writing advice since Anne Lamott told us all to just put our butts in the chair. The work behind the work is to keep going, no matter the outcome: failure, success, or that blech feeling when we realize that success, if it’s found, is not as fantastic as we thought it would be, and that it flies away so quickly, like a bird.

Gilbert also writes about the skittishness of success: “You might be offered rewards on a silver platter, even as a rug is simultaneously being pulled out from under you.”

***

I have decided to think of my writing as my dining room table. With all the leaves in, our table can seat 14 or so, if we really cram in around it. It’s nicked and worn, and some of the chair backs are loose from friends leaning back too heavily. It’s okay. Please, go ahead. Make yourself comfortable. Have some pie warm from the oven, or even if it’s not.

Seeing my writing as the dining room table, weirdly, is a metaphor that helps me navigate my way between the heady fireworks of success and the afternoon rain of what I might otherwise think of as failure.

A table is a place for people to gather round and talk. There is laughter and sharing, or maybe sadness and pinot grigio; or just big pitchers of cool water at either end for the thirsty. You can’t always control how the evening turns out, or even who will show, but you can set the table and open wide the front door. You can ask questions, listen, and see all that is in common between your shared stories. The table is a place for exploration and conversation, and for growing closer to new and old friends.

Table is not dependent on the polarities of success and failure, winning and losing, but it is deeply valuable for the experience it offers, for its process. When we stay seated, we learn something new, always, no matter what happens in the end. That’s why the table, as a metaphor for work, works for me.

Failure is dangerous only when success is our sole objective. In our tender hearts, we know this. We learned this lesson first in grade three gym class, in some horrible race we lost. We started out crouched and staring at our socks, our front knee in front of us and both hands right on top of the starting line in the runner’s starting position, like Mrs. Purdy showed us. When we sprang up, our legs felt like they would propel us right up and off the ground. Our arms pumped and so did our hearts. But we didn’t win. At least not that time. But we were a little bit glorious anyway.

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