Everyone Around Me

Basically I wanted everyone around me to fail. I wanted them to step up with confidence, to have a warm sense of themselves as they started playing the recordings of their symphonies or showed the first slides of their sculptures or started into the first lines of their poems — and then I wanted to feel the gradual spreading recognition among us, measure after measure or slide after slide or line after line, that this was very bad work. Upsettingly bad work. Trivial, familiar, self-indulgent. I wanted each of us to be wondering how we would respond when the presentation was over — what would we say to the artist? What positive thing was there to say without being dishonest? And then I wanted everyone around me to fail at the response. I wanted the applause to be scattered and awkward, and I wanted people to stumble over dodgy phrases like Really interesting and You know, provocative, and Was it nice to share your work?

Then I would approach the bereft artists and I would be the only person able to console them, to find some genuine goodness in their work for them to treasure…

Then I would approach the bereft artists and I would be the only person able to console them, to find some genuine goodness in their work for them to treasure, and when it was my turn I would rise and take my place at the front of the room and begin to move through slides of my paintings, talking quietly about what had drawn me toward each of these images, and though it would be somewhat dark in the room I would be able to see that, even after the first few slides, there were tears on the faces of everyone around me — grateful, humble tears — and even the sound of the occasional gentle sob, and in this way everyone around me would be elevated from failure and lifted to a place where, just after me, they would begin to understand how they might succeed.

People, however, did not fail. In some cases I didn’t know whether the work was good or bad, but in all cases they were received as successes. The audience of artists applauded rapturous applause; they hooted. They called for more.

Presentations usually happened after dinner, after we had spent all day in our studios working on our various things — I was trying to push my paintings toward some of the hotter colors — and then come together for whatever meal the artist’s colony had made us. Usually the meals were good. At the very least they were always good in the sense that they had been made for us for free and would be cleaned up for us, too. (I didn’t want the kitchen staff to fail — I wanted them to lead happy, prosperous, well-appreciated lives.) Toward the end of the meal there would be the sound of someone tapping a knife against a water glass, and the person would announce they were doing a short presentation after dessert, and everyone would applaud even the announcement. Everyone would applaud even if the person was announcing that he would be singing some new songs for the third time that month.

There was a man who did that — who sang us new songs on three different occasions, not even counting the couple he reeled out casually for late-night drinking sessions in one studio or another, though never in mine. I wanted this man in particular to fail, though he had always been very nice to me; he sat across from me at meals more than once and told me interesting things about songwriter circles and living in Atlanta and asked me things about me and my life, too. I wanted him to fail, but again I wanted to be the one who succeeded at making him feel better about it, at making him feel under-appreciated rather than under-talented. What’s wrong with these people? We’d say, shaking our heads. And so ultimately it would be a more positive experience for him than if he had gotten a standing ovation.

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