I spent years try­ing to fail dramatically

The Post’s Alexan­dra Petri failed at fail­ure. It re­ally hurt.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Alexan­dra Petri is a Wash­ing­ton Post blog­ger and colum­nist who also writes plays. Her de­but es­say col­lec­tion ‘A Field Guide to Awk­ward Si­lences’ was just re­leased from NAL/Pen­guin. alexan­dra.petri@wash­post.com

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?

KATHER­INE MITCHELL/FLICKR VIA GETTY IMAGES

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