art, avoidance

On failure in writing

“One of the things that young people need to know when they go into writing,” she said, “is that they ought to stop writing these stupid books that please people. They should write as if they might fail at it. To succeed at something mediocre is worse than to fail at something great.”

“Jamaica Kincaid on writing and critics.” Kate Tuttle. The Boston Sunday Globe, Nov. 3, 2013. p. N18.

“Curiosity is the most powerful thing you own.  Don’t put limitations on yourself. Other people will do that for you…failure has to be an option in art and exploration because it’s a leap of faith.  In whatever you’re doing, failure is an option, but fear is not.” 

James Cameron, director of “Avatar,” at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference on Feb. 13, 2010. CNN.

“If you’re going to try anything, try something big,” [Stephen] Sondheim told the rapt audience during a visit to Brown in February.  “Make a big failure.  Big failures are dignified.  Little failures are shameful.”

“Why Write?”  L. G.  Brown Alumni Magazine, Mar/Apr 2010, p. 20.

“Why fixate on success when, as Bob Dylan once put it, ‘there’s no success like failure’ and ‘failure’s no success at all’?”

Bob Dylan. “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”  Bringing It All Back Home. Columbia Records. March 1965. Quoted in Stephen Prothero. God is Not One:  The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter. New York: HarperOne, 2010. p. 302.

“‘Insignificance is the locus of true significance. This should never be forgotten,’ Barthes tells the interviewer from Le Monde. ‘That is why it seems so important to me to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level, I would even say the most minimal level possible. This is an anti-mythological action.’”

Ben Kafka. The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. New York: Zone Books, 2012. p. 142.

art, avoidance

When writing is hard

When writing feels painful, I think about these statements.

“A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.”

Charles Peguy, “The Honest People,” Basic Verities (1943), tr. Ann and Julian Green. Quoted in Robert D. Hare. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. (Originally from Atria, 1993.) Guilford Press, 2011.

“I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to feat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

“Solitude and Leadership.” William Deresiewicz. Lecture to the plebe class at the U.S. Military Academy in October 2009. Reprinted in The American Scholar. Spring 2010. p. 27.

“A writer is a person for whom language is a problem.”

Roland Barthes (1915-1980)

“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Gene Fowler, 1890-1960

On the other hand, though, just because it is difficult does not mean we should take it too seriously. Part of the hard work is learning to put our foolishness in perspective.

“To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 4
art, listening, poetry

Virtual Poetry Readings, March 2020

Participate as a reader, or listen in!

March 20 – 5:30 PM EST – Online Literary Happy Hour hosted by Matt Bell. Interactive Zoom is already at capacity; watch YouTube livestream.

March 23 – 8 PM EST – Costura Creative Living Room Reading Series – Donation-based “tickets” through EventBrite
March 23 – 8:30 PM EST – Boston’s Poet Laureate Porsha Olayiwola hosts a poetry reading with Crystal Valentine. “The Remedy” on Instagram Live.

March 27 – April 11 – The Stay-At-Home! festival, “a free and completely online literature festival designed to shine some light, joy, and connectivity.”

March 28 – 6 PM-midnight EST – #TweetSpeakLive (you must sign up in advance to read)

Wednesdays noon EST during April (National Poetry Month) – Simon & Schuster on Instagram – April 1, William Evans gives writing tips

Performance Anxiety – a monthly reading series, organized through Twitter, archived on YouTube

Poets in Pajamas – a bi-monthly reading series, Sundays 7 PM ET

Poetry Circle – an ongoing tweet-thread of poetry videos, started by Tara Skurtu

Distāntia Remote Reading Series – Seeking video submissions by poets. All videos are captioned.

Poets of the Pandemic – Videos are being planned. Captions anticipated. Likely prerecorded.

Shelter in Place (Maris Kreizman, with Lit Hub) – Discussions with authors about new releases

Train/Car Reading – Instagram-based, videos archived online

Vintage Victorian style quill pen engraving. Original from the British Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel. Wikimedia Commons.
Star Market over the Massachusetts Turnpike

Air rights to my ideas

The Star Market over the Massachusetts Turnpike today.
Photo credit: Edgar B Herwick III/WGBH News.

In the early 1960s, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, designing a highway between the western part of the state and Boston, wanted to build through the parking lot of an existing grocery store in Newtonville. In a Solomonic decision, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Turnpike Authority could build the highway there and that the grocery store owners would have “air rights” to rebuild their store above the highway. The grocery store reopened in 1963. (This is explained in a delightful WGBH news story from 2017.)

It feels, to me, like the creative spirit doing battle with hegemonic powers. You may drive me into the ground, but did you know that I have air rights to my ideas?

Reflective puddle behind a bicycle wheel

The process of finding out where we are going

It may be easy to think yourself a “good writer” from a young age. You form letters correctly, spell, and punctuate. You write a poem that pleases yourself and a couple friends. Your teacher pats you on the back. You compose a short essay that satisfies a standardized test. You win a student award. You get a degree in writing. The local newspaper publishes your “letter to the editor.” You formulate a clickbait headline followed by an article that is shared a dozen times on social media. Maybe you can write in a second language. You don’t suffer “writer’s block.” Your boss reads some of your emails.

Why, then, can you look back on something you’ve written only recently and be surprised at the memory of how difficult it was to communicate information that is so obvious to you now, just a few months later? If you were already a “good writer” then, how did you have room to progress so much in this particular area? Why does this keep happening to you with poem after poem? Were you really a “bad writer” all this time, fifty times over, until you learned to write those fifty poems?

Much of our life experience implies to us that it is simple to evaluate whether someone is a “good writer.” Either they can write something — anything — or they cannot. Either they can write to a particular specification or they cannot. Either they satisfy themselves or they don’t. Either they satisfy others or they don’t.

But all of that assumes that the benchmark is known in advance. What about everything we don’t know? Humanity knows a vanishingly tiny fraction of everything there is; each person knows a vanishingly tiny fraction of what is known to humanity; what an individual knows is always skewed by their perspective; an individual changes over time, acquiring new information, forgetting old information; what we want to believe is determined by our values; and what we can communicate, and what our audience can understand, is another matter.

So, yes, last year you had fifty hard-won personal insights and you challenged yourself to express them in fifty poems. You felt you were a “good writer” for being able to do this. This year, you reread your fifty “old” poems, and everything about them seems obvious to you. You no longer feel there was anything remarkable about those insights. Those poems are little more notable to you than your grocery shopping lists.

That’s because “good writing” is not just one thing. In this case, it was fifty different things. Last year, you didn’t know that you didn’t know them. This year, you know that you know them. Later in life, it’s possible you may forget them again. Maybe, at that time, you won’t need them anymore.

This year, there are, of course, many more things you still don’t know that you don’t know. This year, you’ll discover fifty new things that you don’t know, and then you’ll have an opening to work hard to learn them. There will always be an infinite amount more that can be learned. Part of our life’s work is to decide what it is that we want to be good at.

Cultivating writing skills, regardless of whether we already believe ourselves to be “good” or “bad,” is a process of finding out where we are going.