That Is Why You Fail


I’m sitting in my car, in a parking lot littered with the debris of a so-called superstorm. To my right is the husk of car crushed by a fallen tree. It is the same make (Volkswagen), model (Jetta), and color (dark blue) as an automobile I used to drive. But that’s not what’s making me cry.

Last night, after talking through a problematic scene from my novel, I said to my wife, “I could be done with this thing in a month, if I could do nothing but write.” And that wasn’t an exaggeration. Though I’ve been plugging away at Down the Cape for nearly ten years—longer, if you count the plays I wrote in college that birthed my protagonists—the end is finally within reach.

She told me, tenderly, that she wished I would quit my teaching gig and just do it. Then we talked for a while about her willingness to take risks and my stubborn refusal to upset the status quo. She would happily throw away our house and all of the comforts of life that me working two jobs affords us, if only to see me happy and writing. We turned off the lights and she wrapped her arms around me. I was comforted, but I’ve never been able to sleep like that, so I pulled away, rolled onto my side, and then, finally, drifted off.

I woke up tired, tired and aggravated at the thought of the two-hour commute in front of me. A podcast kept me distracted for the first part of the drive. Then, craving something a little more thought-provoking, I turned to the end of an audiobook I’ve been revisiting, Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys.

I’ve taught the film version of Wonder Boys for several years now, so I know the story pretty well, and that was part of the idea. End my early morning with something familiar and beloved, and thereby start my day off right. But there was something I hadn’t expected: the subtle differences between the end of the novel and the end of the film.

Though both feature the protagonist, Grady Tripp, returning to a true writing practice after years of masturbatory messing around, the novel slows down the transition significantly, forcing us to linger on Tripp’s transformation from harried and over-stretched to centered and calm. The closing passage, where he talks about when he writes (in the morning, if his son lets him; in the afternoon if not) and about the simplicity of his life now—that’s the part that brought me to tears.

That’s what I want for myself, I thought. But I don’t have the courage—or the carelessness—to do what Grady had to do to get there. I can’t bring myself to blow up my life and start over. I’m too afraid.

"And that," the voice of a Muppet in a swamp calls out from my memory, "is why you fail."