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.


I spent half the night tossing and turning, fending off panic attack upon panic attack, fretting over everything in general; in particular, a few sentences I’d spent ages trying — and failing — to write. To think that, on a good day, Michael Moorcock can toss off some 50,000 words — or so I read in Hari Kunzru’s fascinating interview in The Guardian yesterday.

Naturally, today was a bit of a blur. I met one of my three half-sisters at Anvers. As I was early, I had a coffee at Les Oiseaux, a café across the road from La Cigale, the famous concert hall. I remember going there after an Interpol gig, in 2003, with a group of friends that included the young lady who would become my wife: that’s obviously one of the reasons why I’m fond of that café. It’s also slightly secluded and a good spot for people-watching — the prerequisites for any good Parisian café. It was mild and sunny, so I sat outside. It almost felt as though spring had arrived. It felt good, or as good as could be in my present state. It felt almost good. It almost felt good.

The restaurant experience was slightly surreal. For starters, the owner, who I had down as a typically Gallic character, was entertaining a young English guy in perfect English. He may well have been bilingual; I couldn’t hear him well enough to make sure. Then another English guy came in and they all started talking about Zadie Smith. (I almost expected her to walk in at this juncture.) Was he a literary agent or a translator? He was accompanied by a young woman — probably a writer — who was all dressed in black. The gaffer remarked that she looked scary. I glanced over at her. She was staring blankly at the menu. I felt I knew how she felt. Of course, it may just have been the effect produced by the menu.

On my way home, I walked past another restaurant. In fact, I walked past many other restaurants, but in this particular one I spotted an old mate of mine. He had already spotted me, but pretended he hadn’t. I followed suit.

Switched on the telly this evening, and my friend Tom McCarthy, was being interviewed about Tristram Shandy. As usual, he was spot-on. “A novel,” he said, “is something that contains its own negation, right?” Right.

I have always been very ambivalent about journals. I’m wary of the idea of writing as self-expression. I’ve always found it very difficult to talk about myself, as I fail to understand how anyone could be interested. People are attracted to journals in order to discover other people’s secret, private lives but I would never record anything that could embarrass anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings. Simon Critchley writes — and I was re-reading this yesterday — that “In the journal, the writer desires to remember himself as the person he is when he is not writing. …” Perhaps I don’t want to remember. Or can’t. I’m not even sure such a person really exists anyway.