Failure

The idea seemed relatively easy to execute: an acrylic rod with shallow openings drilled in each end to fix the piece in a silicone mold, hand laid Japanese paper glued on the circumference of the rod, cast the piece in polyester resin. When the resin hardens, de-mold the piece, turn it down, polish and drill to receive the barrel of the pen with section and nib. Fountain pen Japonisme. I decided the barrel would be black anodized 6061 aluminum, the section a piece of gold swirled resin that would highlight the gold highlights in the predominantly red pattern of the paper. The red and gold combination might lean a bit toward chinoiserie, but the pattern on the paper itself would be characteristic of the simplicity of Japanese design. I became quite excited at the prospect.

As a pen maker (I like the term penwright, but it’s a non-word and is unlikely to be accepted into the OED any time soon), I have a few ground rules. First, I only make fountain pens. Ballpoints and rollerballs are ubiquitous, and I’m not interested in spending hours on something so common. Second, each of my pens must be the only one – I do not repeat designs or combinations of materials so that the user has the pleasure of knowing that their pen is as unique as their thoughts. I have friends who make pens, and they (smarter than I) design and execute a particular model of pen – a certain size and shape that they make over and over, at times changing the material to add some diversity. The approach has much to commend it: the maker can standardize certain operations insuring consistency, but more importantly the buyer has the experience of wanting something that others have (and find satisfactory). Brand consciousness has worked wonders for buyers of the Toyota Camry and Tommy Hilfiger clothing and it has been a successful strategy in the very small world of fountain pen purchasing. People want a Sailor or a Mont Blanc, a Waterman or Montegrappa because they are readily recognizable, symbolic of a certain kind of visual style, and have become associated with fine writing instruments. My friends who make fountain pens as a serious hobby (read: addiction) or small business have embraced the method of the big companies because it works and folks who are passionate about collecting pens know the makers by their models and do their spending accordingly. My next pen will be a Gorgonzola Trident, or some such model name.

But producing the same pen over and over holds no appeal for me. Beyond bromidic, the process would become uninteresting after the second was finished, tedious after the third, and loathsome by the fourth. So each pen is different. It keeps me imagining. Fountain pen Japonisme contained the perfect combination of novelty, technical challenge and specialized appeal.

And failure. The first fail was the construction of a silicone mold. Neglecting to anchor the positives in the mold appropriately left my $40 investment in two part silicone moulding material looking like a collection of flotsam on a quiet cove of the Jersey shore. The second $40 mold worked better, but the nipples designed to fit in the ends of the acrylic rod tore slightly when demolding the positives, meaning that I could get a few pieces out of it, but another $40 would be needed to make one that could be used repeatedly. Still, my excitement held as I did a lot of learning for less than $100. I’ve spent thousands on post graduate degrees and learned less.

One by one, I glued expensive pieces of paper to acrylic rods that I had turned down to size, cast them in polyester resin (which, due to its atrocious odor, had to cure in the garage if I wanted to remain married). Give it plenty of curing time and be patient turning down this irregular shape into a cylinder.

So far, I’ve ruined eight. I’ve tried different adhesives, different treatments of the paper surface, different ratios of catalyst to resin, multiple approaches to curing the cast. They’ve all failed.

Most of my inspiration for persistence in design and execution of everything from pen making to gardening to food preparation comes from a visit my wife and I made to Florence a number of years ago. Of all the glories in that glorious city, I was most deeply moved by our visit to the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze where Michelangelo’s statue of the David is on display. Arguably the most famous piece of statuary in the world, the David seen by itself is a wonder, especially considering Michelangelo’s age when it was created (he was a mere 26 when the work began), the fact that the piece of marble used was rejected by two other sculptors because it was deemed to difficult to work, and its imposing size (17 feet in height, weighing in at a massive six tons). But for me, the most powerful aspect of the David’s near-perfection is the walk up to the lighted dome where it stands. The David is at the end of a hallway lined on both sides by other large blocks of marble that Michelangelo started but never finished because of irreparable mistakes made in the carving. Known as “The Hall of Prisoners,” each piece is an imperfect part of a human, consigned forever by failure to remain trapped in stone. Michelangelo made mistakes. Apparently, a lot of them. Walking through his failures on the way to his triumph is a remarkable piece of museum theater and an inspiration to persist in the face of inadequacy.

Unfortunately, not all failures lead to eventual perfection. My Fountain Pen Japonisme has been left behind as I have finally deemed my original idea and the method of execution unachievable. I wish I could say that I learned a great deal in the process of ruining lots of material, but unfortunately, I didn’t.The idea was expensive, time consuming, and deeply disappointing.

Mr. Rogers (one of my favorite modern day philosophers) once said “We have to let some dreams go in order to make room for new dreams.” For me, that is a piece of wisdom easier to hear than to implement. I resent the cost of failure, actual and emotional. I find it hard to embrace my inability to bring to fruition an idea that is so clearly and completely defined in my imagination. I mourn the loss of time: time when other ideas more easily achieved could have been pursued and likely realized. But more than any practical consideration, I balk at the acceptance of my attempts as failures.

I could argue that our failures are a necessary part of our humanity, that our boundaries are most clearly defined in our unfulfilled striving, allowing us to better understand and embrace the edges of our abilities thus enhancing our capacity for realistic and achievable goals. I could even urge the embrace of personal, professional, political, and relational failure as a stimulus to transformation, an antidote to the arrogance that so often accompanies human striving, insisting that we learn more about flight from Icarus than from the winged. All of these I accept in my mind, but something deeper (most likely sub-cortical) pushes back demanding that I either commit myself to Sisyphean labor until that damned stone reaches the top or practice punitive avoidance by abandoning the work altogether.

Often, my relationship with failure becomes a contest – a battle between my arrogant insistence on my “undefeat-ability” and my fear of accepting my own limitation. More often than not, exhaustion wins and I decide in favor of the conservation of energy spent in frustration and self recrimination. I walk away, not resigned to the embrace of my limited capacities but rather to the almost seething determination that skill or method or process will be acquired in the end.

From the end of the hallway, David urges, “It’s not no – it’s not yet.”