Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure

This post was published in The Guardian. 

I couldn’t but help. Fall in love with the post, the emotions, the language, the widsom but most of all, the writers chewing out words not for the sake of the world but for the sake of the words themselves.

Here is a Excerpt:

Anne Enright

I have no problem with failure – it is success that makes me sad. Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do. It is built in. Your immeasurable ambition is eked out through the many thousand individual words of your novel, each one of them written and rewritten several times, and this requires you to hold your nerve for a very long period of time – or forget about holding your nerve, forget about the wide world and all that anxiety and just do it, one word after the other. And then redo it, so it reads better. The writer’s great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day. It may not be what gets us to the desk but it is what keeps us there and, after 20 or 30 years, this love yields habit and pleasure and necessity.

So. All this is known. In the long run we are all dead, and none of us is Proust. You must recognise that failure is 90% emotion, 10% self-fulfilling reality, and the fact that we are haunted by it is neither here nor there.The zen of it is that success and failure are both an illusion, that these illusions will keep you from the desk, they will spoil your talent; they will eat away at your life and your sleep and the way you speak to the people you love.

The problem with this spiritual argument is that success and failure are also real. You can finish a real book and it can be published or not, sell or not, be reviewed or not. Each one of these real events makes it easier or harder to write, publish, sell the next book. And the next. And the one after that. If you keep going and stay on the right side of all this, you can be offered honours and awards, you can be recognised in the street, you can be recognised in the streets of several countries, some of which do not have English as a native language. You can get some grumpy fucker to say that your work is not just successful but important, or several grumpy fuckers, and they can say this before you are quite dead. And all this can happen, by the way, whether or not your work is actually good, or still good. Success may be material but is also an emotion – one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold.

I am more comfortable with the personal feeling that is failure than with the exposure of success. I say this even though I am, Lord knows, ambitious and grabby, and I want to be up there with the rest of them. Up! There!

The sad thing is, when the flash bulbs do pop and fade, you are left, in the pulsing after-light, with a keen sense of how unhappy people can be with what they have achieved in life. Perfectly successful people. With perfectly good lives. And you come to appreciate the ones who have figured all that shit out. Meanwhile, and briefly, you are a “success”, which is to say an object, whether of envy or acclaim. Some people like all that, but I, for reasons I have not yet figured out, find it difficult. I don’t want to be an object. I find jealousy unpleasant (because it is unpleasant). I resist praise.

The writer’s life is one of great privilege, so “Suck it up”, you might say – there are more fans than trolls. But there are two, sometimes separate, ambitions here. One is to get known, make money perhaps and take a bow – to be acknowledged by that dangerous beast, the crowd. The other is to write a really good book.

And a book is not written for the crowd, but for one reader at a time. A novel is written (rather pathetically) not to be judged, but experienced. You want to meet people in their own heads – at least I do. I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.

Howard Jacobson

It starts early. You can come into the world smugly trailing clouds of glory, already sainted in the life before life, or you can enter it reluctantly and ashamed, helpless, naked, piping loud – Blake’s baby not Wordsworth’s, at the first sight of whom your mother groans, your father weeps. I was a Blake baby. I failed birth. I kept my mother waiting, arriving not just late but at a peculiar angle. I caused her pain and disappointed my father, who didn’t weep exactly but would have liked his first child to have a more relaxed attitude to existence, though this was made plain to me only gradually, after years of his entering me in talent contests whenever we went on holiday to Morecambe, or pushing me up to join other kids on stage at the end of pantomimes, or shouting “Here!” and pointing to me when magicians asked for volunteers.

Success for him didn’t mean making money or excelling at anything in particular – it simply meant being at home in the world and fearing nothing. So it wasn’t because he wanted me to be a footballer or a cricketer that he objected to the notes my mother wrote every Wednesday, requesting I be excused from games. He would just have liked me to be everybody’s friend, the way he was. And I failed him. I failed my mother too by taking far too precocious an interest in sex. And I failed myself by not knowing how to get any.

But you have to see failure as an opportunity. I took the route favoured by all worldly failures and became a spiritual success. That might be an inflated way of putting it, but failures are nothing if not grandiose. If the world doesn’t value us, we won’t value the world. We seek solace in books, in solitary and sometimes fantastical thinking, in doing with words what boys who please their fathers do with balls. We look down on what our fellows like, and make a point of liking what our fellows don’t. We become special by virtue of not being special enough. I doubt many writers were made any other way.

Art is made by those who consider themselves to have failed at whatever isn’t art. And of course it is loved as consolation, or a call to arms, by those who feel the same. One of the reasons there seem to be fewer readers for literature today than there were yesterday is that the concept of failure has been outlawed. If we are all beautiful, all clever, all happy, all successes in our way, what do we want with the language of the dispossessed?

But the nature of failure ensures that writers will go on writing no matter how many readers they have.You have to master the embarrassments and ignominies of life. And, paradoxically, one of the best ways of achieving this mastery over failure is not to drown it in alcohol, not to take pills or see a shrink, but to relive it, over and over, in words. It isn’t that the words enable you to change the outcome and exact revenge – that invariably makes unsatisfactory reading. You can tell when writers are reinventing their experience vaingloriously. What writers at their best achieve is a saturation of shame, triumphing over it by excluding or extenuating nothing, possessing it as theirs, and handing it back again, depersonalised, in comedy of one sort or another.

The first novel I wrote had failure as a subject. My hero was failing to write a book about it. Had he succeeded in finishing I’d have had to write about success and I knew I never wanted to do that. It would have been a kind of sacrilege. Success as the worldly estimate it is, is rarely a subject for literature. Gatsby cannot possibly get Daisy. Dorothea Brooke cannot be allowed to change the world. Thus does art get its own back on those without the imagination to fail.

For more, read the article here.

Featured Image: Illustration by Neil Webb/Debut Art

 

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One thought on “Falling short: seven writers reflect on failure”

  1. Thank you for sharing this, I really enjoyed reading it, especially this bit:
    “And a book is not written for the crowd, but for one reader at a time. A novel is written (rather pathetically) not to be judged, but experienced. You want to meet people in their own heads – at least I do.”

    Liked by 1 person

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