Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing
Failure in writing is not like failure in business, where you lose money and have to fire everyone and remortgage your house. When you’re a writer, most of the time, people don’t depend on you to succeed. Although you may starve if your books don’t sell, or your agent might yell at you for producing something that three people will read, failure in writing is more of an intimately crushing day-to-day thing. O.K., minute-to-minute. Measured against your ideal of yourself.
In the last few years, Philip Roth and Alice Munro decided to put down their pens.
Munro told this newspaper that she didn’t know if she had the energy “to do this anymore.” And Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” Roth and Munro have produced many admirable works. They should be allowed to stop failing on a daily basis, if they want to, in their eighth decades.
But the rest of us are stuck.
In writing, failing is not dramatic. There will be no news headline: ANOTHER WRITER FAILED TODAY.
Sure, there are garden-variety failures, the ones everyone can see, like not getting rave reviews, prizes, cushy teaching jobs, fellowships in Tuscany and membership in prestigious intellectual societies. But these are nothing compared to the other ones, invisible to the civilian eye.
Failure in writing is not just external failure. Not having produced a best seller by 23 (or 36 or 54) is the least of your worries.
By the way, unless you come from a family of writers, you can be certain that your family will have no idea what you’re talking about when you mention that you’re failing every day. They will encourage you to become a radiologist. They mean well. They are likely to be worried about the thing that most families are worried about, namely your ability to support yourself in the fashion to which you are accustomed.
But for writers, early on, other kinds of failure demand attention. There is the logistical failure of getting to your desk. Then there is the failure of not being able to stay there. John McPhee once famously tied himself to his chair, which strikes me as a good way to deal with the torpor that overcomes many writers when faced with the blank page or screen.
But even if you succeed here, you can’t stop your mind from getting up and going over to the couch. Another potential failure: pacing. Writing is not like bingeing on “Breaking Bad.” You have to do it every day. Whatever happens.
Sometimes, especially when you’re a young writer, you pay too much attention to what other people think. You worry too much that you are a failure. You measure yourself against other people’s possessions and talent.
Yet, perversely, you have to be inured to success. If you succeed (in the marketplace) right away, you risk failing your talent before you even know what that means. If you don’t succeed, you risk a failure of nerve.
I remember the first time I felt like a bona fide failure as a writer. This feeling of nausea washed over me, but it was confusing because it appeared at the exact moment when I was supposed to be feeling success. It was when I finished my first book and realized there were some things in it that I hated, things that were made all the more hideous to me whenever people said, “You must have such a sense of accomplishment.” I asked a more experienced writer if she ever got over this nauseated feeling. She didn’t reassure me. “Oh, that never goes away.” ….
Read the rest of this terrific piece at http://nyti.ms/1t3yK2z
Fascinating up close and personal interviews with major writers on this subject of the writer’s malaise avaIlable FREE in the archives of the legendary archive of the Paris Review Interviews. All the big shots are there, and are candid, ruthlessly honest, about their languor and pain in dealing with the constant haunting feeling of failure.
Rachel Shteir is the author, most recently, of “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.”