My brilliant failures


I’ve never been successful when it comes to holding a job or making money. And through the first few tries I was not successful at marriage either. I think my inability to succeed came from being half of a cute-as-all-get-out set of identical twins who were spoiled rotten and the delight of our parents and older siblings. From the get-go, I knew I was fairly talented (probably not as much so as I thought), but I never thought I was particularly smart. In school we discovered we could get away with murder if we were funny, and we were good at making people laugh. Mother said we thought any grade higher than a D was wasted effort.

I liked English (lit and grammar). I was a wiz at diagramming sentences. But I was an atrocious speller. And I loved Art. That was it. Every other subject was either boring or too hard. And I skipped classes a lot. We were constantly in trouble. In our high school yearbook, it was written: “Every morning after the announcements the principal says, ‘Will Bill and Alec Clayton please come to the office.’”

I didn’t do much better in my Freshman year of college. I majored in fraternity parties. I avoided any kind of math, even though I knew I would eventually have to take a math class if I wanted to graduate. I dropped out of Spanish after the second day—again, knowing I would eventually have to take a language class. And I flat out failed ROTC. Believe it or not, ROTC was required of all Freshman and Sophomore men. It was pass or fail, no grades. All you had to do to pass was show up in uniform one day a week and march around with your company. I basically didn’t show up.

I didn’t go back after Freshman year. Instead, I joined the navy. And I got married. In the Navy Radio School in Norfolk, the top ten graduates were guaranteed their choice of assignments. I was in the top ten, and I had my heart set on shore duty in Hawaii, where my wife and I could rent an apartment on the beach. But then I got somebody to take my place when I had duty—without permission—so I could go to a party. I got caught and busted down from Seaman to Seaman Recruit, the lowest rank. Along with getting busted, I lost my choice assignment. Instead, I was stationed on the U.S.S. Taconic, a lumbering old top-heavy ship that was terrible in heavy seas.

I won’t go into details, but my wife divorced me.

I finished out my time in the navy and went back home and back to college. This time I buckled down and made good grades and graduated with honors. Got married again, worked a few lousy jobs, and went to graduate school. Running out of money in the second year of grad school, I told my major professor I was going to have to drop out and get a job and, hopefully, I’d be able to come back and finish my degree sometime in the future. I was going for a Master of Fine Arts. He told me I could get a Master of Arts instead with the hours I already had. All I had to do was write a thesis paper. A Masers Degree is a Masers Degree. He didn’t bother to explain that getting the MA, considered a lesser degree, instead of an MFA would have job repercussions later on.

I got married again and divorced again. I don’t understand it. I had taken a class my Freshman year called Marriage and Family Life and aced it. So I should have been good at it.

My third wife and I (married 45 years and counting, so I guess I must have learned something) published a weekly newspaper for about eight years and a literary arts magazine for a couple of years. We had a small but dedicated following, and the magazine was a critical success, but both failed financially. Writers Digest listed us as one of the top 100 fiction markets in America right before we went bankrupt. Gabi’s mother, who was never known for being encouraging, told her, “You never were good with money.” She meant it as a dig. Later, Gabi said to me, “We’ve never been good at making money, but we’ve been really good at living without it.”

I got a job as an adjunct teacher in the Art Department in my hometown university, and after a couple of years at that I was hired as gallery director with a couple of studio classes to teach. My title was Visiting Assistant Professor. Or was it Visiting Associate Professor? It was something like that. I taught a Freshman drawing class. Now, we had figure drawing classes in the Art Department, with nude models. But only upper-level Art majors could take figure drawing. This rule was based on the assumption that upper-level Art majors were serious about it and there wouldn’t be guys signing up for the class so they could ogle the naked models. My students, though beginners, were serious about art, and I wanted them to be able to draw from the nude. In three years of teaching there, no one had ever come into my classroom unannounced. So who would know? So I asked my students and the model, and they all agreed, and she disrobed. Wouldn’t you know it? For the first time ever, another teacher barged into my class. It was my friend Jim with a woman who looked vaguely familiar. I knew in a glance that I had seen her before or had seen a picture of her. He said, “Could you step out here, please?” and immediately shut the door.

I stepped out in the hall, and Jim introduced me to Elaine de Kooning. I couldn’t believe it. Elaine de Kooning visiting our little South Mississippi Art Department (I can’t remember why she was there). I would have loved to spend time with her talking about they heyday of Abstract Expressionism in New York when she was there with Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and, of course, her husband, Willem deKooning. But we had only a few minutes to talk about I can’t remember what. And Jim said nothing about the unauthorized nude model. Not then, not ever. Thanks, Jim.

I had that summer off, and then right before fall classes were to start, I was called into the chairman’s office and told I was being let go. “We hate to do it, but the administration looked at your transcripts and discovered you only have an MA and your position requires an MFA.” That was that. Nothing I could do about it. I later learned through the grapevine that there was some bigshot professor the Business School or Math Department wanted to hire, and he would come only if they also gave his wife a job. She had the required degree I didn’t have.

That was when we gave up on Mississippi and moved to Olympia, Washington, where over the next dozen years I got hired and fired (or laid off) from three different jobs. I was fired from my job managing a bookstore because magazine sales were down. Yep, that was the excuse they gave me. I was laid off from my job as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, supposedly because they were cutting back on expenses. (My fellow reporter Margaret Dilloway was also fired at the same time; she moved to L.A. and became a successful novelist.) And I was fired from my job as a program director at a youth center because I had a heart attack and my extended sick leave caused hardships on scheduling other workers. I swear to God, that’s the reason they gave.

Since then I’ve been happily working as a freelance writer. The pay is not good, and the benefits are nonexistent, but I’ve never been happier. As Gabi said, we’ve never been good at making money, but we’re good at living without it.

2 thoughts on “My brilliant failures”

  1. Thank you for sharing this glimpse into your life story, Alec. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it. And I love Gabi’s wise words, “We’ve never been good at making money, but we’re good at living without it.”

  2. It is so nice to have this ( hilarious) look into your background. Who knew that whizz on the volleyball court ( albeit water) had such a colorful life. We were rolling on the floor reading it. Love to you and Gabi C&J


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