The New York Times has a series called “Draft” about the art and craft of writing. It’s a great resource which you can access here. A few days ago writer Rachel Shteir wrote a particularly resonant post: “Failure, Writing’s Constant Companion.” A few excerpts from her first-person essay:
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.
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.
Every night, I tweet a couple of items by writers about the craft. As it happens, the other night I had scheduled this quote from E.B. White: “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”
And that’s precisely because any time we sit down to write, we are confronted with the possibility of failure. Indeed, not just the possibility, but the probability. As Ernest Hemmingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to 99 pages of shit.”
That quote equates to probability… with extreme prejudice.
The thing is, the haunting specter of failure never goes away and it exists at every stage of the process, every level of experience as a writer, from aspiring to professional.
How each of us manages to cope with that reality is one of the great mysteries of life. Every writer is different. Every story is different. And the fear of failure is not a static entity, rather a demonic dynamism that can morph into any shape to haunt our conscious and subconscious states of being.
Here’s one thing I try to remember to combat the probability of failure and it reaches back into my days studying theology. In words ascribed to the Apostle Paul, Romans: 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
That sounds awful, right? But when I apply that to writing, it’s actually a freeing thought. For I know I cannot attain perfection, I will always fall short of what I aspire to accomplish with any story. So rather than be defeated by the soul-sucking shadow of failure, this mindset allows me to accept the nature of writing, and move forward.
Rachel Shteir sums it up nicely in her NYT piece:
As you get older, rest assured, you accept failure as part of your writing life. You realize the many forms failure can take: There is sentence-to-sentence failure, in which the words fly from your brain out the window or throw themselves on the page like suicide bombers. There is the failure to get on the page what is in your head. There is a failure of will. There is organizational failure, in which you wind up collapsing.
You develop strategies to deal with it all. You develop a kind of sixth sense, a detective’s intuition about what will fail and what won’t. But above all, no matter how much you fail, you still sit down at your computer every day, and you keep going.
For the rest of the article, go here.
How about you? How do you cope with your constant companion: failure?