Richard Evans, president of an organization called EmcArts in Seattle, was in Portland last summer for a conference on innovation in the arts. His talk, “The Real Work of Innovation,” focused on best practices from arts organizations across the country. As he described successful projects, I was struck by how often Evans used the word fail, from a quote attributed to Winston Churchill (“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm”) to his description of encouraging innovation through a culture of “fail fast, fail early, fail safe.” Failure doesn't seem to be the American narrative of choice. As a culture, we prefer Horatio Algerlike tales of characters who overcome extreme adversity to embrace and then bask in well-earned glory. I was taken aback but also bewitched by the notion that failure is an integral component of success.
This uncertainty about the role and definition of failure shows up in a few of the essays that follow, but it also played out as we selected the stories and cover image for this issue. At the outset, I expected a lot of discussion about personal and public failures: domestic dramas, hard-luck stories, the financial crisis, wars, and political divisiveness. But what happened was a fundamental disagreement about what constituted failure. For example, when someone falls gravely ill or cannot conceive a child, are these failures? No, said one camp, because there is no blame to be had in these situations, no ability to directly control the outcome (the cancer, the infertility). Yes, said the other camp, because the breakdown of the body is a legitimate kind of systems failure, albeit blameless. Agency and culpability are irrelevant; the failure is an event of the world.
The writers in this issue ponder both kinds of failure, those that result from human action and those that are bestowed upon us, but in their stories, more often than not, the two kinds become interwoven: a bold move to the West that results in the death of a child; an unsuccessful attempt to revive a family business that leads to a botched episode of violence; and bad luck and oversight behind the scenes of an otherwise successful career. Others explore failure as an idea, as a given and essential part of being human. Ultimately, all suggest that what matters is what we do with these moments of faltering and struggle—how we learn about grace, gather our strength, and, if we're lucky, rekindle our sense of hope.
Speaking of failure and success, we want to know what you think about the magazine. What are we doing well? Where are we coming up short? Because we really want to hear from you, if you participate in a brief online survey, you'll be eligible to win some great prizes—an iPod Touch, signed copies of new books by Oregon authors, and O. Hm. merchandise. Visit oregonhumanities.org for more information.
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