I spent years trying to fail dramatically
The Post’s Alexandra Petri failed at failure. It really hurt.
Iam afraid of many things. Drowning, fire, that I’ll be hit by a bus without having had a chance to clear my browser history, that one day everyone else on the subway will suddenly be able to hear what I am thinking and turn on me. You know, the usuals.
One thing I’m not afraid of? Looking like an idiot.
See, I’ve always known I was a writer. That was protection. No matter where I went, no matter what I did, I could turn it into a story. Fall through a hole in the sidewalk? Story. Make the worst Final Jeopardy! wager of all time? Story. Anger the lord of the ocean, stab a one-eyed guy and get very, very lost on my way home to Ithaca? Epic story.
And the dumber you appeared to be, the better the story was. Nobody wants to hear, “And everything went smoothly, just exactly according to plan.” Something had to go wrong. That was where the excitement lay. I spent high school waiting for these epic fails to come to me. More often than not, though, they didn’t. By senior year I was the president of four clubs. I was captain of the volleyball team, even though I spent most of my time on the bench.
So in college, I came up with a new strategy. I wouldn’t just wait for failure— I’d cultivate it. The plan was simple. I just had to become dramatically, unquestionably, horrifically bad at something. I had to get myself in front of people and flop
like no one they’d seen before.
Easy, right? No. There is an art, I quickly learned, to being a fiasco. You can’t just be bad. Half the art is knowing how to go too far. You must keep a straight face. If you’re auditioning, you must sing badly, but feelingly. You must put the emphasis on the wrong syllable, read comedy as tragedy and tragedy as comedy. Overact, over-gesture, pause for no reason mid-sentence and open and close your mouth like a bewildered carp. You must turn in a whole performance.
I began my training by auditioning for plays under a false name. You could be more convincingly terrible, I discovered, when you had a back story. So I crafted a character. Her name was Gloria Nichols. She had recently lost a lot of weight, loved to make bold gestures where no bold gestures were called for and was polite to excess, striving to please an unseen vocal teacher who told her she had great promise. “Any talents?” the student directors asked. “I have heart!” I wrote. “And kidneys!” At one casting call, Gloria recited Yoda’s entire death scene for a baffled group of Women in Science Players. She tried out for a troupe of “Pussycat Doll-style dancers,” writhing and prancing for the required five minutes of prepared dance. (Five minutes is a lot longer than you think it is.) She even auditioned for “America’s Next Top Model,” which required her to fill out a complicated form (Have you ever been so angry you threw something? “My back out, one time.” What in the past do you regret? “The Holocaust.”) and teeter, high-heeled, down a catwalk.
Eventually, I set my sights on the big league — “America’s Got Talent.” If I could come up with a truly embarrassing act, I figured, I might end up on national television. I was going to be so wincingly bad that I’d make it on the air. I was going to join my idols. All I had to do was seem sincere. As the saying goes, if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
I wouldn’t be Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood; I’d be short, buttoned-up William Hung, wrangling his painfully earnest way through “She Bangs.” On one path lay Kelly’s international fame, but on the other lay William’s Christmas album, “Hung for the Holidays.” Now that was what I called a career trajectory. That was a story!
As the audition date approached, I pondered my shtick. I would be a performance artist, I decided.
I had tried this once before at a Christian talent agency, offering a triple-threat combination of mediocre monologue, bad song and worse dance. “Come back to Earth, Gloria,” the organizers gently urged as I aimlessly roved the stage, staring off into the middle distance. This approach seemed ripe for a broader audience.
I would rap and mutter and speak in tongues and shout the names of the Founding Fathers and sing snippets of “I Dreamed a Dream.” I drilled myself into the wee hours of the morning. It was almost, a nagging voice suggested, as much work as developing a real skill. I smothered this voice quickly.
I arrived at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center early to join the long line of hopefuls and glanced around at my competition. A young man with a melon-shaped head and diminished interpersonal skills approached me and sang a few snippets of Usher,
When I got into the audition room, I gave it my worst. I sang. I twitched. I shouted. (“I dreamed a dream in — AARON BURR! AARON BURR!”)
spitting into my face. A tiny young rapper got stage fright after the organizers formed a circle around him and tried to make him rap for the camera. One man cornered me and told me about his plans for an evangelical book set on another planet where everyone had more than five senses. I began to think that they were not here in the hopes of getting a story out of it. They were there because they genuinely believed they had It. Whatever It was.
When I got into the audition room, I gave it my worst. I sang. I twitched. I shouted. (“I dreamed a dream in — AARON BURR! AARON BURR!”) I turned in what would have been the performance of Gloria Nichols’s lifetime. I didn’t stand a chance. As I flailed and gyrated — “I dreamed a dream in time gone byeeee . . . Aaron Burr Aaron Burr” — I caught the female judge looking at me. We made eye contact, and I could tell she knew.
So that was what actual rejection felt like. My worst wasn’t bad enough. All this time, working hard to be terrible, and nothing.
Actual failure hit me hard. I’d spent years trying to fail. I’d been courting failure, using irony, trying without really trying. This willingness to flop felt like a secret superpower. I could go anywhere and do anything and feel like, deep down inside, I hadn’t really been rejected. But then I was, and it stung.
I’m not the only one I know who grew up doing this. Millennials tend to be vigorously, painfully self-aware. Don’t be too earnest, we tell ourselves. Don’t look like you care. Then you’re vulnerable. Life is full of opportunities for rejection, and if you start really trying, you’re going to start really failing. Hard. And it’ll hurt.
So we put on dopey glasses and grimace so no one can tell us we’re not pretty. We drink lousy beer so no one can accuse us of having bad taste. We look stupid on purpose out of fear of looking stupid by accident. We don’t even try to dance. Anything to postpone the moment when we are actually going to have to stand up, put ourselves out there and be told it’s not good enough.
But after a point, that’s a pretty thin satisfaction. And the trade-off is brutal. You never get to know if you would have made it or not. Maybe you wouldn’t have looked stupid. Maybe you’d have been incredible. I’d spent years practicing, stood in line for hours and now I’d never know what would have happened if I’d tried.
I’d always thought I’d be all right because I was a writer. Words were a bright thread that could lead me out of any labyrinth; I just had to keep them pinched carefully in my fingers as I walked. Nothing could hurt me as long as I kept hold of the thread. I could seek out anything — awkward, odd, novel, even a little dangerous— and cage it up in sentences, put it on display, its teeth still sharp, maybe, but the bars too thick to bite through. But in trying not to be hurt, I was missing the real story. I was still afraid of jumping. I didn’t want to fail for real. I wanted to be a secret success.
All this time I thought I was becoming a master of flops, I’d been safe inside my turret. Where was the adventure in that?