Last week at Blue Mountain Center, where I was invited to take part in a mini residency, I finally delved into Abigail Thomas‘ new memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. It came out earlier this year and I bought it months ago and it has sat while we slowly moved into our new place and got used to too many changes. New apartment, new husband, working from home, etc. I did something while away I used to do a lot—just recopied passages from her book and other things I read there. I’d fallen out of the habit of doing that, but at BMC, I just settled into the book and reading at a table next to my friend, Holly. Hours passed.
I admired that Abby wrote about failure. It’s something I have thought about a lot—how to deal with it, why my students and their parents struggled with it, why I do, and how to write about it. Everyone fails at something, at some time. So why is it so hard to accept it? I do think half of life is showing up, but do we need participation awards? I got a D in calculus in college and most likely should have failed. I was horrified, and life went on. I’ve failed at much larger things with far greater stakes than that, too. Everyone has. It’s what comes next that says something. What did I do with it? What am I doing with it?
Here’s something Abby wrote in What Comes Next and How to Like It:
“I am trying to convince myself that failure is interesting. I look the word up in the American Heritage Dictionary to find its earliest incarnation, but it has always been just ‘failure.’ There’s no Indo-European root meaning originally ‘to dare’ or ‘mercy’ or ‘hummingbird’ to make of the whole mess a mysterious poem. I can find no other fossilized remains in the word. Humility comes along on its own dime.”
One of the many things I love about Abby’s writing is short chapters. Suits my way of thinking—these interconnected fragments. I loved her various two-page assignments (I took a four or six week class with her at the 92nd Street Y in TriBeCa, the last year I lived in NY) and I used them sometimes in my classes—and I love how she has composed whole books (like one of her memoirs, Safekeeping) in these segments. Here’s one for today from What Comes Next:
“Late fall, and the color is gone. This is the season of bare trees, the kinds of trees my sister Judy describes as looking as if they died of fright. A perfect description. Judy should be a writer, I nag her all the time. ‘If you’re not going to use it, I am,’ I say, but I’m careful to give credit.
The leaves were glorious yellows and reds and browns, but a few along Tinker Street (and one you could see only from Cumberland Farms) were a deep shade of rose. Rose! You had to gasp. But except for those moments of painfully beautiful color, I haven’t felt anything like shouting, can’t think of anything to write or paint (I don’t know how to do autumn), and nothing more has occurred to me recently about failure, except that it’s failure.
But when it gets dark, I’m off the hook. The day is officially rolled up and put away. I’m free to watch movies or stare at the wall, no longer holding myself accountable for what I might or might not have gotten done because the time for getting something done is over until tomorrow.” —Abigail Thomas
Thank you, Abby. It’s nearly time to stop working.