Stephen Marche on the Truth About Writerly Perseverance
“The sources of writerly perseverance are mostly silly.”
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Here’s the thing: The sources of writerly perseverance are mostly silly. Samuel Johnson once said that “no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but if you’re looking to make money, there are a hundred thousand better ways to do it than writing. Still, the drive to survive financially is one of the greatest sources of writerly perseverance. “Where does a man get inspiration to write a song like that?” Grace Kelly asks in Rear Window, overhearing a neighbor’s new melody. “He gets it from his landlady once a month,” Jimmy Stewart answers. The very best reason to keep throwing yourself against the door is because you have to.
Sheer bloody-mindedness, too, is underrated as a motive. So much has been written in the spirit of “I’m going to show those motherfuckers.” The problem with bloody-mindedness is that you never do get to show any of those motherfuckers. I’ve been rejected many thousands of times. I’m going to show all of them? Besides, if you do get to a point where you can show those motherfuckers, they’ve probably vanished. The people you want to prove wrong die. The institutions that you want revenge on dissolve. “Time is no healer,” T. S. Eliot said. “The patient is no longer here.” It is one of life’s merciful little sadnesses.
The motives of perseverance, I think I should point out, are all probably stupid. Perseverance is a form of what the Buddhists call attachment. A life of blessed inconsequence is probably superior. Money and bloody-mindedness are better sources for perseverance than the love of writing, that’s for sure. Writers are often proud of how much they hate writing. I find it bizarre. You don’t hear guitar players whining about how much they hate playing the guitar. But the sheer joy of writing well, the affiliation with controlled language, the booming resonance of the Word to the horizon of being, the chance to play the glamorous instrument, English, the unsolvable labyrinth of tone and significance that lead to fleeting recognitions, apparent even in this miniature essay, to see that Li Bai and Herman Melville would have commiserated, to know that Ovid and James Baldwin walked in the same dark woods—that love of language won’t keep you working.Sheer bloody-mindedness, too, is underrated as a motive.
“Fail better,” Samuel Beckett commanded, a phrase that has been taken on by business executives as some kind of ersatz wisdom. They miss Beckett’s point. Beckett didn’t mean failure-on-the-way-to-delayed-success, which is what the FailCon crowd thinks he meant. To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down.
Writing itself is failure. Even the successes are failures. In the best work, the intentions of the author fall away, leaving an open field for readers to play in, and they create meanings that may have nothing to do with the author’s. Jonathan Swift famously intended Gulliver’s Travels as an indictment of all humanity but ended up leaving a story for children. The joy of language is also a torment. “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to,” Flaubert wrote, “while we long to make music that will melt the stars.” Nobody knows what they’re writing. Intention never aligns with result. You never know how readers will react. You never see how readers will react. It’s all what quantum physicists call “spooky action at a distance.” And here we come to the real crux of the matter at last: The spirit, and its daemon language, live in failure.
I am writing these words now, in a dark morning a few days before Christmas. The air has the leaden cold of Canadian winter, and I have draped myself in a blanket decorated with stitch work constellations. A strange sempiternal fog is lifting on the street. Through a fragile and nebulous and tenuous network, these words have arrived with you. Perhaps you bought them. (Thank you.) Perhaps you borrowed them. Perhaps you stole them. Perhaps a teacher forced them on you. Perhaps you’re in jail. Perhaps you’re in love. You might be reading them in a dorm room, or the community space of an old folks’ home, or on a beach in Belize, or in the subway. Perhaps you’re not reading these words at all because the publisher who commissioned them folded or refused them. I don’t know. I can’t know.
That discrepancy is a torment and it is a thrill, that resonance that should be impossible. The reader has that thrill, too. I know. John Keats wrote “Ode on Melancholy” for me. Specifically he wrote it for me at 15. He wrote it for a teenager in a suburb in a city in a country, none of which existed at the time of his writing. He may not have known it but he did. And I do not know who I am writing this for, or for what time, or to what purpose. But there is a deep longing in me—and it’s not a lie, not a fraud—to make these words for you. These ephemeral connections are the substance of victory, to belong to a constellation of meanings, to alleviate a specific, minuscule cosmic loneliness. It seems like such a small satisfaction to expend your life on. It isn’t. “You ask, why send my scribbles,” Ovid, in his exile, asked. “Because I want to be with you somehow.” Somehow, anyhow.
No whining. No complaining. Shakespeare died with unproduced plays, with manuscripts he had worked on burned to nothing, lost forever. Why should it be any different for you? This business leaves everyone, every last one, ragged.
Stephen Marche’s On Writing and Failure is available now from Biblioasis.