On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin

— by Sam van Zweden

How can the essay come to ruin? How can failed essays become ‘successful’?

This panel, in the first time slot for the conference, brought together Lindsey Drager, Sarah Minor and Kristen Radtke to speak to the topic of ‘On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin’.

In a way, the panel seemed to focus more on the ruin as essay, in a way. The discussion slipped constantly between the ruinous essay and the stories we create around physical ruins, using visual elements to look at the ways essays can reflect the physical ruin. Physical ruins hold fascination for humans – both Minor and Radtke talked about the ways that we use ruins to externalise internal doubt, existential fear, and morbid curiosity. “Some day there will be nothing left that you have touched”, said Kristen. This is terrifying. This is liberating.

The opening paper, from Lindsey Drager, acknowledged from the outset that the essay (both the essay read by Drager, and the essay form overall) will fail. The speakers who followed echoed this idea. Why the ruin?

Ruin is inevitable because language fails. “How to capture and share the lived experience incapable of being languaged?”, asked Drager. Both language and visual elements can “try to do the idea too fully” (Minor). The parallel between the essay and physical ruin lies in the space created by ruin – the opportunity for readers to bring something to the work.

Is decay what essays struggle against? Is the ruin – of landscape, of man-made objects, of essays and language – eternal and unavoidable? By embracing this inevitable failure, are we opening up to possibility and moving past what would possibly be distress? As each speaker touched on the inevitability of ruin and failure, I felt torn between freedom and despair. A ruinous, failed essay could be liberating, if you know from the outset that it is destined to fail. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit said that “…with ruin a city comes to death, but a generative death like the corpse that feeds flowers”. This seemed to be a sentiment that each of these panel speakers turned towards.

On TripAdvisor, there’s mention of a local Flagstaff site of ruins – something understated, still being excavated, a side-of-the-road open secret. No entry fee. No plaques explaining significance. The reviews are mixed – some people love not being told what to make of these ruins. Others are upset by the lack of guidance. What am I looking at? This is, perhaps, the failure of ruin.

‘On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin’ might view these unmarked ruins as just right – let ruins open up space, and the reader bring along whatever they will.

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Sam’s attendance at NonfictioNOW 2015 was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund.

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On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin

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