that failure is also a species of love by Sam Cha
In the middle of my senior year of college, I stopped writing. Why I stopped isn’t as important as the plain fact that I had, and that I knew I had. That would have been okay, had I also stopped thinking of myself as a writer. But I hadn’t, and so nothing was okay.
You know how it is, if you’re a writer or have tried to be a writer. You have to keep writing every day: a word, a sentence, a fragment, anything. Otherwise one day you wake up and you realize: oh, I didn’t write anything yesterday. And you mean to double down on your work. You say to yourself: okay, I can fix this, no big deal, I’ll just write twice as much today. But also: god, why didn’t I write anything yesterday I’m such a failure if I don’t write anything today I will be twice as much of a failure. And that second voice is the devil. It is the hand that bursts up from the cemetery mud to grab your ankles as lightning flashes offscreen. And then the foley artists have a grand old time squelching gourds and abusing celery sticks. Because pretty soon you’re two to the nth power a failure, where n is the number of days you’ve spent not writing anything.
By the middle of 2006, I was something like two to the eighteen-twenty-fifth power a failure. That’s a number with about five hundred and forty zeroes. To visualize this, let’s say that each failure weighs as much as one hydrogen atom. The current estimate for the number of atoms in the known universe is something on the order of ten to the eightieth, so—imagine a macroverse in which our universe is an atom. Imagine a macro-macro-verse in which that macroverse is itself only an atom, and a macro-macro-macro-verse above that and so on and so on, until you get to seven “macro-”s. That macro-macro-macro-macro-macro-macro-macro atom—made of universes of universes of universes of universes of universes of universes—outweighs two to the eighteen-twenty-fifth power failure-hydrogen atoms. But not by a lot.
I’m not claiming any kind of special status for my failure, by the way. You’re lugging around a backlog of failures just like that. All of us are. I don’t care who you are, how successful you’ve been, how pleased with yourself you are—you’ve got a list of things that make you say bad things to yourself in the shower. And isn’t that amazing? People are just people. They do all of the normal people things: they walk around and talk and drink and make loud trumpeting noises in public restrooms. Wipe their asses. Check their email on their phone. Wait for the bus. Run through the rain. Lean against the gigantic blown-up image of Emma Roberts’s striped panties pasted up on the information kiosk in Harvard Square. Take selfies. Every single one of us carrying around a burden of regret that would squash the God of the Old Testament like a bug.
Failing to write wasn’t even the worst of mine, anyway. By 2006, I’d failed pretty spectacularly at (in roughly chronological order): helping my parents through serious illnesses; being a good teacher; getting a Ph.D. in English literature; remembering to take my anti-depressants every day; holding down a job in Manhattan. My only friends were Central Jersey kids who liked to get drunk and play video games and yell at each other. I spent most of my free time getting drunk and playing video games and yelling at them. Oh, and my marriage was on the rocks.
I was good at: shmoopy baby-talk, the kind that the most annoying couples you know engage in in public; self-pity; anxiety; hemiplegia; picking out cheap science fiction books from the second-hand bookstore down the street; finding potential drug dealers at parties; screening phone calls from bill collectors; screening phone calls from my parents; Soulcalibur II frame data; falling off of bicycles; stacking books in no particular order on my bookshelves; putting off reading Infinite Jest;chugging a bottle of beer in two seconds flat; sleep apnea; desultory yet compulsive masturbation; half-assed suicidal ideation; anime marathons; self-recrimination; thinking I was misunderstood-unfortunate-unique; identifying with Stephen Dedalus; pretending to know more than I knew to people I knew who knew more than I knew; oscillating between monstrous self-regard and abject self-loathing; terrible quantum physics analogies; syntax, the torture of; pseudo-academic jargon; losing hours to the internet; software piracy; enumerating my failures to myself at the meta-meta-meta-meta-meta-meta-meta-cosmic speed of thought.
I was horribly lonely.
That, ultimately, was why I started writing again. I wanted to talk to somebody with my real voice. It was a want that outweighed two to the eighteen-twenty-fifth power failures.
I wrote about a pretty-far-fetched apocalypse—one in which suicide becomes a kind of contagious prion or ingestible meme. I wrote in the voice of the last survivor, the one holdout. I tried to make every other sentence involve a pun.
Then I looked in Craigslist—this was 2006, remember—to see whether there were any magazines that were looking for submissions.
There were a few magazines, but only one that I liked. It was apt, of course. I sent in my story. It was the first time I’d sent anything anywhere.
Later in 2006 and early 2007, when I was living in my soon-to-be ex-sister-in-law’s basement and sleeping on top of a Goodwill couch and listening a lot to “Ol’ 55” (both the original Tom Waits and the Sarah MacLachlan), knowing that I had a story that actual people had chosen to put in their actual journal—well, I won’t say that it made anything about those months better, necessarily. But when I moved out and started living on my own, I joined a writing group. I gave up on the writing group, but still I wrote every day. And I started going to readings.
At one of those readings, I met Dawn. We have children together—six-year-old twins. They are—among many many other things—strange chains of not-quite-cause and not-quite-effect that incorporate my two to the eighteen-twenty-fifth power failures and apt. I have to stop writing this now, so I can make dinner for them.
There are better endings for this essay, perhaps, but I can’t think of any right now.
More work by Sam Cha in apt:
“Thanatotropism” (Issue Seven, November 2006)
“[Harvard Square, Marathon Day 2013]” (Fourth print annual, January 2014)
“[Seoul, June 1995, Night]” (Fourth print annual, January 2014)
“For My Mother, with Ellipses” (Fourth print annual, January 2014)