A Writer’s Lament: The Better You Write, the More You Will Fail

From a New York Times essay by Stephen Marche headlined “A Writer’s Lament: The Better You Write, the More You Will Fail”:

“Is it ever easier?” a young writer asked me recently. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” She was suffering because an essay she’d written about the death of her mother had been rejected by every outlet that conceivably might publish it. I had no answer, so I told her a story.

Just before the outbreak of Covid, the novelist and short story writer Nathan Englander had moved into my neighborhood in Toronto, and we would sometimes sit around my backyard firepit, drinking and complaining. “Is it ever easier?” I asked him one night. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” Englander had no answer, so he told me a story. He had once been at dinner with Philip Roth. “Is it ever easier?” he asked Roth. “My skin will get thicker with each book, right?” Roth didn’t need a story. He had an answer. “It’ll get thinner and thinner until they can hold you up to the light and see through,” Roth said.

A paradox defines writing: The public sees writers mainly in their victories but their lives are spent mostly in defeat. I suppose that’s why, in the rare moments of triumph, writers always look a little out of place — posing in magazine profiles in their half-considered outfits with their last-minute hair; desperately re-upping their most positive reviews on Instagram; or, at the ceremonies for writing prizes — the Oscars for lumpy people — grinning like recently released prisoners readjusting to society.

The dominant narrative at the moment is that failure leads to success. The internet loves this arc: low then high; first perseverance, then making it; all struggle redeemed; the more struggle the more redemption. I hate those stories. Don’t tell me about how it’s all going to work out. Don’t show me J.K. Rowling scribbling her first Harry Potter book in cafes, a jobless single parent dependent on welfare. Stories like this are about as useful as lottery ads are to retirement planning. Personally, I’ve always felt comforted by the realization that failure is the body of a writer’s life, and success only ever a temporary attire. But I do ask myself a question that I know a lot of writers, in many different periods, have asked: Is now a particularly lousy time to be a writer, or does it just feel that way?

Part of the problem, for writers of my generation anyway, is that we’re living in an aftermath. The relative peace and prosperity of the postwar era gave birth to an array of literary institutions that have been in managed decline ever since. Failure is spreading because of technological and social changes that are beyond anyone’s control. The writing of our time is in constant, unrelenting transition. One mode of writing (print) is dying and another mode (digital) is being born. And in digital writing, whole schemes of meaning arise and then dissolve or rot or flame out, leaving only ashes and uncertain memories of a bright flash. Each transition requires starting over, re-evaluating, submitting and, above all, failing. Just to survive, young writers today will have to live through multiple revisions of who they are and what they do. Within a few years, the modes of expression they’re learning now, the writerly identities they hunger to inhabit, won’t exist or won’t be recognizable.

The boomers’ writing lives were exceptions. With the extreme turbulence and decaying institutions of our moment, we are returning to the historical standard. The next time you’re rejected from some grant or some job, remember James Joyce in 1912. He had just turned 30. He was living in self-imposed exile in Italy, with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, and a couple of kids. His landlord was threatening to evict him for rent arrears. In desperation, he applied for a job teaching English at a local technical college, but he didn’t have the necessary qualifications and sat for an examination in Padua for a teaching diploma — three days of written work, followed by an oral exam. Literary history presents us with the scene of Joyce, who had, by this point, already written “Dubliners” and much of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” attempting to prove to administrators at an Italian technical college that he knew how English worked.

Writers’ abilities and their careers simply do not correlate; they never have. A particularly vicious species of irony drove the working life of Herman Melville. His first book was “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life” — pure crap and a significant best seller. His final book was “Billy Budd,” a masterpiece that he couldn’t even manage to self-publish. His fate was like the sick joke of some cruel god. The better he wrote, the more he failed. “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter,” he complained to his mentor Nathaniel Hawthorne. After his death, the manuscript of “Billy Budd” sat in a breadbox, known only to his family. It was published posthumously, 33 years later. Melville died like a kid cranking out an irregular poetry zine with a novel in his drawer.

The farther back you go, the more evident the power of failure. “Bad fortune, I think, is more use to a man than good fortune,” Boethius wrote in the sixth century. “Good fortune always seems to bring happiness, but deceives you with her smiles, whereas bad fortune is always truthful because by changing she shows her true fickleness.” Boethius ought to have known. He wrote “The Consolation of Philosophy” after some likely trumped-up connection to a plot against the Goth king Theodoric led to his being imprisoned and condemned to death. Up to that moment, he’d been a lucky guy, a prominent member of a patrician family, a prodigy, head of the whole Roman civil service for a while. His two sons became consuls on the same day — honor enough for any life. Only after his fall could he write “The Consolation.” According to some accounts, Boethius’s jailers tortured him by tying a cord around his temples and pulling until his eyes popped out of his head before cudgeling him to death. Was that enough bad luck for him? If you do need bad luck to write, how much do you need?

Of course, Socrates and Confucius and Jesus were all failures. Their failures were the most profound, the most total. The great philosopher couldn’t talk his way out of his own execution. The greatest scholar of practical politics held office for only a brief period and couldn’t get a job. Jesus Christ may be history’s most spectacular failed writer. He preached love, and in return his friends betrayed him, his people turned against him, the authorities crucified him. After his death, his disciples gathered a bunch of his speeches into a handful of potted biographies that contradict one another, and their readers used these texts to, among other things, justify brutal empires. Two thousand years later, Jesus has more than two billion devoted fans. They get together, sometimes more than once a week, to read his stuff out loud to one another. A career could not have gone much worse or better.

Lists of writing rules are very popular, like rules for life, and about as accurate. They both offer a comforting sense of agency. Some of this advice is good, like Elmore Leonard’s: “Never open a book with weather,” “Avoid prologues,” “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” Other writerly advice can be too obvious or even beyond your control. “When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books,” Zadie Smith proffered whimsically. Margaret Atwood’s is outright wacky but also the most practical: “Before every one of your readings, have a Fisherman’s Friend.”

James Baldwin had more basic counsel. He told The Paris Review: “Write. Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say. If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you. If you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you.” There follows Baldwin’s recipe for a career: “Discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.” Discipline, love, luck can all be boiled down to endurance. They’re just motivations for endurance. James Baldwin’s writing advice can be summed up in a word: Persevere.

Good writers offer advice. Great writers offer condolences. Writers are peculiar beings with their successful failures and their failed successes. Their skins are so thin you can hold them up to the light and see through them.

Stephen Marche’s new book, “On Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer,” from which this essay is adapted, came out in February.

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