Failure is What Writers Do

Anne Enright, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian 22 June 2013

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.

. . . 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.

A Ceaseless Threnody

Will Self, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian 22 June 2013

To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail — the disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content, and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. It is this failure — a ceaseless threnody keening through the writing mind — that dominates my working life, just as an overweening sense of not having loved with enough depth or recklessness or tenderness dominates my personal one. It follows that to continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience – it’s often said that all political lives end in failure, but all writing ones begin there, endure there, and then collapse into senescent incoherence.

I prize this sense of failure — embrace it even. As a child I loved a John Glashan cartoon that showed a group of meths drinkers lying around on the floor of a squat. “Anyone can be a success,” one of them was saying, “but it takes real guts to be a failure.” Clearly I intuited what was coming. When anyone starts out to do something creative — especially if it seems a little unusual — they seek approval, often from those least inclined to give it. But a creative life cannot be sustained by approval, any more than it can be destroyed by criticism — you learn this as you go on.

. . . No, this is the paradox for me: in failure alone is there any possibility of success. I don’t think I’m alone in this — nor do I think it’s an attitude that only prevails among people whose work is obviously “creative”. On the contrary, it often occurs to me that since what successes I do manage are both experienced and felt entirely in solitude, there must be many others who are the same as me: people for whom life is a process to be experienced, not an object to be coveted. There may be, as Bob Dylan says, no success like failure, but far from failure being no success at all, in its very visceral intensity, it is perhaps the only success there is.

As Tight As Wire

Richard Marshall, “Modernist Ghosts,” 3:AM Magazine 18 June 2013

apparitionalexperience

. . . Reality is inevitably, and tragically, the boss, relentless and remorselessly impervious to the dreams of its inhabitants. We hope for autonomy, agency, but fear it’s just the drink talking post hoc most of time. ‘When you say my name, you retain nothing of me but my absence. And nobody is present behind these words I speak’ says Emilie in the Andrew Gallix short story “Fifty Shades of Grey Matter“. The story presents a doomed lover contemplating his lost love. The materiality, the bodily anxiety presses in against the frenetic, desperate and seething mind of the protagonist and throughout there’s a need to try and combine the two — the mind and the body — to understand the relationship in some way. The story is implacable and granite strong in this. The violence of physical action, the dangerous crime that bodies seem to presuppose in the narrative, carries ‘the mute reminder of the possibility of impossibility’ symbolized by an insane aside about anal rape. What kind of dark matter is being imagined in this? The subject is Occasionalism, the question of powers and causality.

. . . Gallix’s odd fiction seems also to hold lyricism in a merciless fixed embrace. The facts are stone, as dry as archaism, stratified, absorbed and the utter indifference to the sensual passion of its protagonist is expressed in a language chisselled and polished like marble. Everything is imagined with prodigal allusiveness. It’s as tight as wire, extremes of tragedy, pathos and irony are cut like contours ploughed into copper with a burin. If the effect is a dismembered cruelty, it is a cruelty of the universe, of a cause from somewhere else altogether, somewhere or some agency that knows enough to cause it.

Gallix’s approach is not alone in the Fiddleblack collection. Nor is this conceit I’m pressing — arbitrarily at times, but then making a run of it to see where we might go, for there are others that might be mysteriously pressed into action. The impossibility of causality without knowledge of how to create or annhiliate, well, that has some edge, even if we think it exactly false. But Gallix, to continue using him as a catalyst here, has that line about the ‘possibility of impossibility,’ and who cannot unforgive a paradox when we’re telling each other stories about how it isn’t?

. . . But the orgiastic demonstration of writing’s imaginative physique is best in the antiquity of Gallix’s Roman fairy tale of Valentin Vermot, a ghost haunted by ghosts that, abbreviated to an essentialist verbatim, goes: ‘Once upon a time there was a man called Valentin. Valentin Vermot. Just like you. He thought he was haunted by a ghost, but his ex-wife assured him that there was no such thing. “There are no ghosts,” she said. “There are no ghosts.” Valentin opened his eyes. He was all alone, but Emilie’s voice was still ringing in his ears. There are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts, there are no ghosts…’ . . .

The Preparation of These Beauties

Jackson Matthews, “A Note on Valéry,” Monsieur Teste by Paul Valéry, 1947, VI-VII

Mallarmé’s work had given Valéry a peculiar formative shock. These marvelous little “crystal systems,” as he called Mallarmé’s poems, struck the terror of perfection into him. Reading them, he could feel nothing but despair (“beauty is that which makes us despair”). He was himself already writing some very good poems indeed, but now his mind was driven past poems themselves to wonder how these “crystal systems” were constructed; the one thing superior to a perfect poem, he thought, would be a full knowledge of how it was made. He was soon to give up writing poems himself and turn his intense powers to the study of “the preparation of these beauties,” the generation of poems in the poet’s mind. Valéry was already coming into possession of his own and proper subject: the mind behind the work.

The Demon of Possibility

Paul Valéry, Preface, An Evening With M. Teste, 1925

Who knows but that most of the prodigious ideas over which so many great men, and a multitude of lesser ones, have for centuries turned gray, may be psychological deformities — Monster Ideas — spawned by the naïve exercise of our questioning faculties, which we carelessly apply here and there — without realizing that we should reasonably question only what can in fact give us an answer?

But the monsters of flesh rapidly perish. Yet not without having existed for a while. Nothing is more instructive than to meditate on their destiny.

Why is M. Teste impossible? That question is the soul of him. It turns you into M. Teste. For he is no other than the very demon of possibility. Regard for the sum total of what he can do rules him. He watches himself, he maneuvers, he is unwilling to be maneuvered. He knows only two values, two categories, those of consciousness reduced to its acts: the possible and the impossible. In this strange head, where philosophy has little credit, where language is always on trial, there is scarcely a thought that is not accompanied by the feeling that it is tentative; there exists hardly more than the anticipation and execution of definite operations.