A Finale on Failure
When I was in high school I wrote out a thirty-year plan for my life. It charted the path I would take from graduating college and law school, to becoming a lawyer, then a judge, and eventually, by the age of 48, being appointed as a Supreme Court Justice. Most teenage girls spent time memorizing facts about their favorite boy bands while I (in addition to knowing Taylor Hanson’s birthday) memorized details about the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.
I didn’t have a lot of friends, basically.
That plan was never something I stuck to (obviously) and one that was definitely more fantasy than anything actionable. I got off course. Found new dreams. Realized I loved writing way more than government. But I never forgot that girl who dreamed of donning a black robe and wielding the most power that the United States can grant an individual (President, schmezedent, the SCOTUS rules all.)
I think that’s part of the reason I have always loved Leslie Knope, the main character on the show Parks & Rec. Leslie always knew what she wanted, and worked towards those dreams. She did so hilariously, and with the help of her friends and co-workers who were just as unique and (usually) driven as she.
It was really hard saying goodbye to Leslie and the crew of Parks & Rec last night, after the series finale aired. I’ll admit that throughout the hour long episode I ugly cried, my face all scrunched up, snot coming out of my nose, weird animal like sounds escaping from my mouth. It was not pretty. Even though they’re fictional, those characters were ones I had not just grown attached to, but, truthfully, sometimes learned from.
Surprisingly, it was not Leslie Knope’s send off last night that spoke the most to me. It was [Spoiler Alert] actually Tom Haverford’s (played by Aziz Ansari.) Tom, the perpetual hustler of the show, reached the end by achieving the success he’d been clawing at for seven seasons. He was a business owner, a restaurateur, and a successful entrepreneur. He had overcome multiple failures to finally succeed. Except….he didn’t. We saw in his epilogue that all his restaurants closed, his businesses failed, and he lost everything. We watched him lamenting to his now-wife Lucy about how many times he failed, and how everything he did was a disaster. Of course, in typical Tommy T-pain fashion, he turned this all into a world-wide best selling self-help book on how to succeed by failing. It was a good joke, and it fit his character perfectly – he finally reached success doing the only thing he was good at – being bad at everything. It was light and fun, and fit with the happy endings given to each member of the cast. But it also really stuck with me.
It made me think about how, unlike a lot of other light, comedic shows, almost everyone on Parks & Rec experienced failure at some point in their arc. Leslie especially, as she was recalled from her dream job as City Council-woman when she was barely into her first term. Ben failed at being an 18-year-old mayor, Ron had multiple failed marriages, Andy failed to get accepted to the police force, and April failed at maintaining Gothic cynicism until the day she died. Each character managed to not just overcome this failure though, but use it to propel themselves forward.
As someone who has probably failed more times than I have succeeded in my life, this narrative theme meant a lot to me. Because even though the series finale walked the line between sweet and saccharine in its send-offs of beloved characters, it still didn’t shy away from failure. It still acknowledged that even the most successful people get rejected and don’t get everything they dream of.
That was something I needed to be reminded of, as I, once again, attempt to reach my dream of getting published. Three years ago I wrote my first book, and sent it out to agents, spending a year hoping and wishing and trying as hard as I could to get published. I failed. It sucked. There was a part of me that said I’d never go through that again, and wanted to just give up entirely. But that part was overpowered by the part of my brain, I guess the Knope-Haverford part, that wanted to keep trying, and wasn’t ready to give up my dream. So I took a year off. Then in early 2014 I started writing another book, my first novel. It felt good to try again, and to experience that involuntary buoying of hope. And in a few weeks, after I finish my last round of editing, I’m going to try again. I’ll send out query letters, feel my heart race every time I see that little (1) in my inbox, and experience the crushing sorrow of rejection when I see a “Sorry, this isn’t for me,” response. It is entirely possible I will fail again. And again. And again.
What I loved about the Parks & Rec finale last night was the reminder that even if this happens to me, I won’t be doomed a failure. I’m not a failed writer. I’m a writer who is still growing, and learning, and working towards a dream. Even if I never actually reach that dream (a scary thought I’m not quite ready to face) I still won’t be a failure. I’ll just be a writer who kept trying, and working, and doing the thing she loved.
So thanks Tom, Leslie, Ben, Ron, April, Andy, Chris, Ann, and Donna. You taught me a lot about what it means to fail, and keep going. You will all be missed. Except you Jerry.