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 year… 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 isn’t a great candidate for adaptation. Cather keeps so much of the drama off-stage, as it were – conflicts are resolved mere moments after she creates them. Her main character isn’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 it’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 didn’t have it in us. It would have required a great deal of… 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 – that I taught to at least half a dozen different classes of students, back when I used to be a professor – 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 wasn’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 I’d initiated had failed. As soon as I write that last word, though – failed – 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 hadn’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 level… and for the most part, I am succeeding. The simple truth is that you can’t be an artist without reaching dead ends. There are times when you have to reverse course, learn what you can from what you’ve done, and set out again for somewhere else. This is one of those times.
I’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 I’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 – at least somewhat – 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.