failure (new Griefbacon no. 1)

hi everybody. welcome to the new version of griefbacon. As I mentioned on tinyletter last night, you’re now receiving this letter through substack, a subscription newsletter service that’s also providing griefbacon with its own home on the internet (most of the archives of the tinyletter are here, if you want to read through those). This letter is free to everybody who subscribed to the tinyletter (hi everyone!) but starting Thursday with the first subscriber letter, the letters will only go to people who’ve subscribed. If you subscribe, you’ll get a new letter Thursday, and then one every Tuesday going forward. You can subscribe for $5/month or $50/year, here (or simply by clicking the “Subscribe” button at the top or bottom of this email). (If $5/month is truly prohibitive but you still want to subscribe, email me and we’ll work something out.) 

I started this newsletter a little over two years ago on a weird, jealous whim late at night in a room at the Holiday Inn in New Hampshire. I was there because I was working with a high school student on their college admissions essays, back when tutoring high school students through the college admissions process was still my job. It was the last few days of October and way up here north of the city, fall had erupted like ad for sweaters and someone else’s family. Out the window were trees like fire on display in a jar, and across the parking lot was a road a few turns off the interstate and a mall with a sprawling liquor store and a bad chinese takeout place. It felt like home - not like it was my home, or that I was at home there, as neither was true, but that this was what home was, somehow, supposed to feel like. The place seemed to say that if I could work back correctly, unraveling all my wrong choices one by one, I would arrive at a childhood resembling the one of the student I was tutoring, stepping out of a warm car into cold air and ordering takeout to bring home through a whorl of bright leaves to a large house whose lights shone slick against cooing autumn darkness. 

The hotel room was cheap and anonymous but in the way where sometimes cheap anonymity is the only thing that feels like being able to sleep, the white paper-textured sheets and recessed lighting of a day with no emails, like a sunday when no one expects you anywhere. I was teaching writing all day but not writing myself, and on twitter so many people I knew were starting tinyletters, sending small paragraphs of heart-rending, un-pitch-able prose, family stories and recipes and album recommendations and lowkey erotica in little forward-marching scrolls of text that I’d read curled around my phone late at night while I couldn’t sleep. I was jealous of my students and I was jealous of everyone starting tinyletters and of everyone publishing essays, and of the world going on one bright achievement after another all around me. I wrote some paragraphs quickly, without looking, like muttering under my breath, told myself I didn’t have to edit it because no one would read it anyway, and hit send.

Personal essays, especially on a college application, are a relatively freeze-dried paint-by-numbers science. Warhol once did a series of Dance Diagram paintings that are exactly what they sound like - a copied dance diagram, numbered and labeled feet, shaded and not shaded, arrows from one step to the next - and also, arguably, a read on Jackson Pollock. All Warhol was ever really doing was shitposting, but as usual the burn itself is a better analysis than any breathless thing I could say about Pollock. Both simply point out where the body has been, tracing the path of footprints across a floor. Distill art down to its essence and that’s all it is: A record of a body in space, of where an individual is at a particular moment, a trace like a signature or a bloodstain that says I was here, I put my body here and then here and then here again. We are all printing onto the landscape; we are all photocopying our asses on the office copy machine late at night. 

Most of the prompts for college application essays ask for some version of a coming of age story. They ask about the transition from childhood to adulthood, or an event that defined the student’s life. Everything on these applications, from the long essay, to the shorter essay prompts that ask about why this school or where you grew up or what your major will be, is touched in triumphal optimism, marked by a sense of reaching upward, of grasping, a nigh-on religious belief in potential. Here you are, on the edge of the high diving board where your life begins, straining out into the whole sky. 

I didn’t go see Ladybird because I am tired of thinking of this as a meaningful experience. I don’t mean tired figuratively. I mean that from the age of 18 to the age of 32 I threw my energy again and again at the idea that this one moment in life, this singular pivot, contained a universe of human experience, a key to the grandeur and smallness and redemption of who we are and how we live with one another in the world. I lived up against the idea that the move out of high school into college, in all its stepping out into nothing, free of cages, fat with youth, full of the ground-floor certainties of the singular self, was some apex experience, some deeply human thing, the living embodiment of the welling in the chest at the end of a movie, the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” floating valedictory across the first bright green day of summer. 

In truth, few people attend college at all, and even fewer attend the kind of college that requires a triumphant and heavy-worded admissions essay, as much as novels and television and movies that take up coming of age stories love to use this as a plot device. It is a form pointed toward an utterly myopic experience, one that excludes far more than it includes. But more than that, human existence does not proceed along the lines of hopeful narrative. Perhaps saturation with these essays is the reason I mostly can’t stand personal writing about achievements, writing whose arc bends toward the light, whose narrator is also the hero, whose good deeds are rewarded. The whole college application is a murderously hopeful document, and hope is the most mercenary emotion, the struck-match trick of salespeople and con artists and politicians, leaving the door unlocked at night, risking everything in a game to which no one told us the rules.

There’s a prompt among the other essay prompts - or at least there was, I haven’t tutored the application in over a year so it might not be there anymore - that asks students to write about a time they experienced failure. Almost no one writes this essay successfully. The prompt is gesturing toward a good essay or even a great one, but it’s asking an unfair high-wire act, to at once promote yourself and show your soft underbelly, to draw a map to where the bodies are buried that’s also a picture of your own face. 

This is perhaps too much to ask of a student simply trying to execute a required task, but this ugliness is where personal writing is useful, if it ever is useful. Autobiography justifies itself in our failures. These are different from our traumas. The idea of writing - or making any kind of art, or simply relating as people - from failure is not at all the same as the (luckily largely outmoded) form of the essay in which spilling one’s guts gains supposed value simply through the volume and vividness of guts spilled. Traumas, in point of fact, are often part of triumphant narratives - eventually we overcome the worst things that happen to us because we have to, because we have no choice but to continue day by day. In the face of trauma, even getting up in the morning is a story about triumph, a salesperson’s tag line about hope. Failures are the things that happen in the margins, outside of the stories, at the edges of the day, in the constant pauses from one word to the next, the connective tissues that underline our lives. They are what the traumas leave behind in the wake of our triumphs against them. Failures are slowness, misunderstanding, muddled readings, the hours in the middle of the night when we can’t sleep but can’t get anything else done either. These moments don’t make good stories because they don’t proceed forward clearly, they go in circles, they stay indoors, they lie down again on the couch to sleep. 

Which is why this thing is called Griefbacon. The term is a popular - and therefore probably at least imperfect, if not wholly incorrect - translation of the German word kummerspeck, which means “the weight gained due to grief,” or something like that. I love this word because it stinks of a humiliating accuracy. Grief, a serious, high-minded emotion; bacon, a stupid, greasy, embarrassing food. Most profound emotional experiences are something like farting in church. They don’t lend themselves to triumphant writing, to polished edges. Grief is the way the house smells like food and sweat when you haven’t gone outside for three days, the sour edges of the sheets when you can’t get out of bed, the braying, heavy-bodied wants that emerge at the bottom floor of the night desperate and undressed, the self that refuses to be staged for a photo, that refuses to aspire upward to a neat concluding paragraph. 

There’s a weird sort of swagger to full-throated loss and abject failure. If there was often a neediness, a pleading, to every first draft essay that focused on the upward progression from one achievement to the next, there’s something almost proud, something nearly stylish, about giving up and letting ourselves go, offering the stories we know will impress no one, digging back to ourselves out from under the mound of resume and job title and family dinner table anecdote. What is stupid and embarrassing, small and weak and boring about us is all that is good about us. Failure is the dance diagram, the noisy splatters of paint that become a canvas, the real record of ourselves, where we’ve been and how we got to where we are, the things we tell each other late at night, after everyone else has gone to sleep, after everyone else at the party has gone home.

anyway, hi again. thanks for following over here to the new version of this newsletter. once again, to get future letters, you’ll need to subscribe here (or at Subscribe button right below this), and those will go out this Thursday, and then weekly every Tuesday. I hope to see you there.