Here’s the thing about failure. The stories we tell portray failing as a necessary step in an upward trajectory towards success, even stardom: the many soul-crushing auditions before an actress wins her Oscar; the disastrous gigs to empty rooms before a band makes platinum; the hundreds of rejections a writer gets before earning that Booker.
But failure in the moment rarely feels like progress.
On February 13, 2009, or very close to it, I declared myself a failure at the ripe age of 31. And that declaration felt final. It felt like forever. I was a failure, and that would be my noun and adjective and verb for my future.
I probably woke up cold and stiff on that day, sleeping as I did next to our Chicago condo’s poorly-packed brick walls, placed as this day was in the most desperate time of winter.
I probably brushed past my partner of eight years while bolting down cereal. We didn’t talk as easily as we used to, and we argued with a frequency that was, at the time, record-setting.
I probably wore sweats and got a bit sweaty while checking my inbox. I worked as a full-time freelance copywriter for magazines and marketing firms. My clients were dying, one by one, killed off by the one-two punch of the market collapse in 2008 and publishing’s slow decline.
I probably put in a couple hours on existing paid projects, but not enough to cover the month’s bills. So I probably spent some time staring out the window, paralyzed.
I probably reread the latest pages I’d written in my novel. This was the fourth or fifth iteration of this novel, in as many years. I probably felt that sense again, that growing knowledge that this iteration, like those before it, was shit. And since I couldn’t figure out how to make it not-shit, I wasn’t cut out for this thing I’d wanted to do since childhood.
I probably cried, or tried to. For years I’d convinced myself that the numbness of overmedication was better than the depths of depression.
That night I probably ate, and watched a show on Tivo, and played with our cat, and did all the weekday routines you create as an adult. And during that time, I probably thought about failure. In the moment, without the certainty of the future, the knowledge that failure will be one step towards success, failure felt like a new way of being, a sentence for life.
And probably, knowing the future wouldn’t have helped. Because there would be more failure in the next handful of years, as I’d leave my partner, close my business, drink to problematic levels. I’d blow my life up, moving cities and jettisoning the past.
In the moment of real failure, nothing else can be seen. Even if I’d known that by 41 I’d be surrounded by amazing friends and family, own a house, have a creative writing degree and some publications and an agent, feel content and satisfied in a way I never have before, failure was all I could see.
That’s the thing about failure. Although it’s a finite step in the process of living, it feels like forever.
Amy Lee Lillard was named one of Epiphany’s Breakout 8 Writers in 2018. Her fiction also appears in Atlas and Alice and the Home is Elsewhere anthology, and nonfiction appears in Off Assignment, Entropy, Epiphany, Gertrude, and Grist. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from the Pan-European program at Cedar Crest College.