For the past several months, I have been working on a collaborative play-development project: the adaptation of the Willa Cather novel O Pioneers! for the stage. A few nights ago, my partners-in-art and I met for the first time since the end of last yearâ€¦ and officially put an end to the project.
Ultimately, the reason we decided to stop working on it was fairly straightforward: the novel, which we all appreciated, really isnâ€™t a great candidate for adaptation. Cather keeps so much of the drama off-stage, as it were â€“ conflicts are resolved mere moments after she creates them. Her main character isnâ€™t really her main character, either; she longs for things, and daydreams, and frets, but does very little — it’s the classic passive-protagonist problem. And finally, the novel is almost structured like an argument, rather than a narrative: this kind of relationship leads to marriage, that kind to death, so you should prefer the former, even if itâ€™s lonely and dry and distant. Nobody goes to the theater to watch somebody build a logical proof.
Even if it could have been adapted, furthermore, we all had to be honest in admitting another more sobering truth: we didnâ€™t have it in us. It would have required a great deal ofâ€¦ something. Passion. Invention.
Naturally, as you might imagine, I felt sad. Part of my blues came from the simple fact that a novel I once loved very dearly â€“ that I taught to at least half a dozen different classes of students, back when I used to be a professor â€“ had become sort of hollow for me. Some people say that great literature teaches you about life; I believe that life teaches you about great literature. In this instance, life seems to have taught me that I wasnâ€™t as discerning a reader when I was younger as I am now.
Most of my sadness, however, came from the fact that the project Iâ€™d initiated had failed. As soon as I write that last word, though â€“ failed â€“ I immediately hear the voice of one of the other three people I was working with, my dear friend John, who made sure that I heard him when he said that the only real failure would have been if we hadnâ€™t tried at all.
I have shared that sentiment with others in the past, but the end of the project has challenged me to embrace it at a deeper levelâ€¦ and for the most part, I am succeeding. The simple truth is that you canâ€™t be an artist without reaching dead ends. There are times when you have to reverse course, learn what you can from what youâ€™ve done, and set out again for somewhere else. This is one of those times.
Iâ€™m very glad we tried, too; I enjoyed the hours that John, Kim, Katie, and I spent together immensely, and I should very much like to try a similar project with them again further down the road, and I believe they all feel the same way. My friendship with John, with whom Iâ€™ve worked before, is certainly deepened; my new connections to Kim and Katie, neither of whom I knew before we started, are a genuine treat. If we make art â€“Â at least somewhat â€“Â to bring ourselves closer to others, then by that measure we were very successful.
So now I will let my fields lay fallow for a short season, and tend the home fires, until I am ready to venture out again to plow and sow and reap. When I do, I hope to have equally strong collaborators by my side… and to remember that failure is never really failure, at least not if we don’t let it be.