The Art of Failure

By Molly Smith Metzler ’00 | Illustration by Daria Kirpach

Acclaimed Playwright and Screenwriter Molly Smith Metzler ’00 Talks About Failure and How it Helps us Ultimately Succeed.

My after-Geneseo plans were pretty simple. I was going to graduate in May of 2000, head to a Ph.D. program in September, and be an English professor by 2007. In my free time, I would: adopt a pug dog, start an herb garden, and be a calm human. But as graduation grew closer, I did something that shocked everyone. I decided to turn down a full ride to a prestigious Ph.D. program so I could move to Martha’s Vineyard and waitress.

Some of you might be wondering why I made such a hideously bad decision. And the answer is: Professor Emeritus Terry Browne. When I was at Geneseo, with one foot out the door, I signed up for his playwrighting class. I’d never taken creative writing before, and he was an extraordinary teacher who made playwrighting sound like an accessible friend I could talk to. Our first homework assignment was to write a three-page scene. I sat down at 7 p.m., and the next thing I knew, it was 7 a.m. I’d written all night.

I hadn’t moved or eaten or peed, and I was covered in sweat, too — like I’d been through something physical. Because I had. That’s how electrifying playwrighting was for me. I knew immediately: it was the thing I needed to do. And I thought Martha’s Vineyard seemed like a terrific place to do it. The restaurants were hiring, and I loved the idea of writing by an ocean. So I told my family I was off to write The Great American Play and I’d see them on Broadway in six months.

But that’s not exactly what went down. First of all, I was entirely too broke to be in Martha’s Vineyard. I had to work double-shifts just to be able to eat and pay rent. I barely even saw the beach, let alone wrote there. Long story short: it was a bust. And by Labor Day, I was back in Kingston, N.Y., working at the same Red Lobster I worked at in high school.

So just to review. Instead of getting a free Ph.D. in comparative literature, I was serving cheddar bay biscuits that were microwaved by an ex-con named Chuckie. But what I didn’t know then is that I was writing that summer. Maybe not words, but the spectacular belly flop of my Martha’s Vineyard trip made me start collecting the pain and questions and injustices I would spend the rest of my life writing about. And three graduate degrees and 10 years later, I did write about it. My play, “Elemeno Pea,” is set in Martha’s Vineyard and explores the ugly side of ambition and class in America. And that play was in me because I survived the summer of 2000. Failed through it.

It’s a lesson I’ve learned again and again: that life doesn’t always look the way you think it will. I thought being a writer would look like a serene day by the sea, watching the tide roll in as effortless pages print. But in reality, I’m hunched over a laptop in a loud Starbucks, feeling like I’m headed over the Niagara Falls of failure.

Case in point: a few years after my Martha’s Vineyard play, I started getting some real momentum as a writer. A New York theater was about to do a big production of my new play. The cast was famous. The design team had Tony Awards. I had billboards in Times Square, and Geneseo gave me an outstanding young alumni award. I thought I had finally made it.  (Or, that this is what that looked like anyway.)

But it ended up being one of the worst experiences of my life. The production was devastating — professionally, artistically and personally. What was up on stage wasn’t what I pictured in my head when I wrote it, but I was too inexperienced to know how to communicate that, and the play flopped, garnering some of the absolute worst reviews in the history of the American theater. The play closed early, my phone stopped ringing, and I started spending a lot of time on the couch watching “Hoarders” on TNT.

So when my husband was offered a job in the suburbs, I thought: good, I’m never going to write again anyway. The next thing I knew, I was a failed playwright living in a crappy Long Island duplex, depressed, unemployed and newly pregnant. But then my daughter, Cora, was born — which was not part of my plan, even though she now seems like the absolute point of all plans — and slowly, that electricity I first felt in Terry Browne’s class started to come back. The desire to write. I started writing an honest play about what it’s like to be trapped in a crappy Long Island duplex, living a life you don’t recognize, trying to sort through the incredible love you feel for a new child. And after I finished “Cry it Out,” HBO called and offered me a job in television. Then Hulu, Netflix and Showtime followed. And right now, yes, I am enjoying a moment of things not being awful. But I also trust and believe and know my next epic failure is right around the bend. And I’m not worried about it. I’ve already failed as royally as a playwright can fail. I’ve been so broke I gave my family individual gummy bears for Christmas. And I’m actually grateful for all of it. My failures have given me my greatest gifts: my daughter and a job I love doing.

It’s been 17 years since I made the disastrous decision to move to Martha’s Vineyard. If you told me then, while I was reciting the fish special, that I was doing crucial work for my life, I wouldn’t have believed you. That’s the funny thing about time, isn’t it? Our definition of success always looks flimsy in the rearview mirror.

Failure pummels us, but if we get back up again, it can free us, too. Under all that sludge and muck and egg on your face is where you can usually find your voice — your electricity. The thing that makes you sweaty. Let’s treat our setbacks not as setbacks, but as the stuff that will give us a wonderful and unique life story — that we get to star in.

Metzler is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter, who is currently a writer/producer on “Shameless” (Showtime). Her credits include “Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix), “Casual” (Hulu), and a film adaptation of “The Thing About Jellyfish” for Reese Witherspoon.

Author: geneseoscene

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