Content Warnings: suicide, self-harm
It’s hard to write this post in a week where two high-profile, objectively massively-successful people have killed themselves. And I’m not really going to write about that. I don’t tend to comment on celebrity deaths, whatever the cause. It always feels… I don’t know. Performative, somehow, in a way I feel awkward about. So that’s not what this is about.
But we are talking about dealing with failure, and I can’t ignore the coinciding cultural conversation du jour, that being successful doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes feel like a failure, and if your brain has certain things miscoded in its conduits, that feeling can seem insurmountable. I can’t ignore it, but I sort of wish I could. It’s rough. It’s been a long time since I dealt with any suicidal ideation in a serious way, but it hasn’t been nearly as long since I’ve dealt with the urge to self-harm. I don’t like talking about it. I don’t like thinking about it, which is why my mute button has been getting a workout this past week. Engaging with these ideas takes me back to places I don’t like being. (ETA: And as I re-read this post, I realize that I’ve written most of it in the distancing second-person rather than the intimate first-person. It’s a way of coping).
So here’s what I intended to write about, and what I think I still can, though perhaps not quite as light-heartedly as I’d initially meant to:
I play a tabletop game that uses this as a major mechanical component. Here’s the short version: when you want your character to do something, you roll a combination of positive dice and negative dice. The positive dice have successes and advantages; the negative dice have failures and threats. Yellow dice are larger and have more opportunities for success, as well as something called a triumph, which is like a super-success; red dice are the opposite, more opportunities for failure, as well as despair, which is a super-failure.
Ideally, you want to end up with more successes than failures and more advantages than threats. But it’s possible to succeed with threat — you manage to sneak past the guards, but doing so puts you in an unfamiliar corridor, or you make the shot, but the stress of the situation impacts your health — or, you can fail with advantage.
My group got really, really good at failing advantageously. We rolled advantageous failures so freaking often that it sort of became our motto.
And we got really creative about turning those advantages into something we can use. Oh, you can just choose to use them to heal strain or pass a boost die, but you can also get more narrative with it: your shot goes wide and misses your target, but you manage to knock down some rocks that impair your opponent’s next move; you utterly fail to convince someone of the lie you’re telling, but you amuse them so much that they decide not to throw you to their pet rancor.
You can learn a lot, failing advantageously. When things don’t turn out as you expect, it forces you to think in new ways. You have to find a new path to the goal.
It’s an important lesson for anyone, but being a writer sets you up for a lot more throws of the dice than some other lifestyles. Every query, every submission, every blank page is an opportunity — for success, sure, but also for failure. That awareness can stimulate, or it can paralyze. It’s super-easy to decide to avoid the potential failure by just deciding not to play (Chuck Wendig puts this well in his “Fuck Your Pre-Rejection, Penmonkey” essay) — but you sure as shit won’t get a success or a triumph that way, either.
I rolled a couple of solid failures earlier this year. I had a plan — to get into a Creative Writing MFA so that I would have the terminal degree I need to teach writing, and I’d spend the next two or three years teaching freshman comp, working on my craft with a financial safety net. But I failed the throw. I didn’t get in. But I know that I rolled some advantage, too — there’s some reason that being tied down for the next few years wouldn’t be the right path for me. I haven’t figured out how to spend those advantage points yet — but I know I will.
And here’s another important lesson from tabletop gaming: when you do throw that failure, or worse, a despair? Trust your team to help you. Look around. Who can pass you a boost die? Who can jam in a stimpack to revive you or heal some wounds? Who can take some fire for a minute to keep you from suffering another blow?
None of us are in this alone — not in the game, not in writing, not in life.
Failing advantageously often means leaning on your friends.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline (US): 1-800-273-8255
International Hotlines: ibpf.org/resource/list-international-suicide-hotlines
Lifeline Chat: suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat