What Happens When Failure is the End Point?

Ryan Lackey:

Near the beginning of each term, I tell my writing students that they’re all going to fail. It’s a rhetorically charged claim; a few students giggle or snicker, clearly uncomfortable, and then everyone grows pretty silent. And then I tell them that I don’t really mean fail in the traditional, F-on-the-transcript-and-uncomfortable-calls-home sense (sometimes there’s more uneasy laughter here); I mean that writing is always the practice of failure. Most things that are valuable, worthwhile, or offer anything like real meaning are developed through long patterns of failure. I construct an x-and-y coordinate plane on the whiteboard and draw in a sweeping exponential curve that levels out right at the horizontal axis: the limit at Y = 0. And I say, look: this line will get closer and closer and closer to the axis over time, but it’s never going to get there. That, I claim, is what it’s like to learn to write.

My students who decide to stick around academia in some capacity post-graduation eventually realize, as I am, that living and working and studying in the academy is also a practice of failure. Rejection can be as frightening for a Ph.D applicant or article-writing professor as for a lovestruck student. It’s the middle of December as I write—application season, the season of submission. Hopeful undergrads- and grads-to-be are filling online forms’ blank fields, pressing SUBMIT, and bedding down into anxious hibernation for a few months.