“There’s No Such Thing as Failure.” Morgan Talty on Writerly Persistence
In Conversation with Brad Listi on Otherppl
Morgan Talty is the guest. His debut story collection, Night of the Living Rez, is out now from Tin House.
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From the episode:
Brad Listi: Most writers have to grapple with failure, especially early on, but there’s really no end to it. I’m wondering about your apprentice years, and about stories that you’ve written that didn’t work, or attempts at this book that didn’t pan out. How long did it take you to get to where you could write this book?
Morgan Talty: It probably took me about five years of writing bad stuff until I got to writing “Night of the Living Rez,” the title story, which in and of itself was not a great story. The one that’s in the book is a substantially revised version of what I had written for the workshop that I submitted in 2015. So, five or six years of dedicatedly writing bad material.
This is the thing I’ll say about failure. There’s two spheres of failure, and one of them really doesn’t exist. We think the failure is that we write something and it doesn’t go anywhere. Then there’s the failure of trying to publish. You just keep getting told no, or you publish a book and it doesn’t sell well. But the failure of writing work and it not turning out into anything is an illusion. I don’t believe that anything we write is actually a failure. I didn’t understand this until a couple of years ago—when we write a draft that doesn’t work, it usually is, in some way, pointing us in the right direction.
“Food for the Common Cold,” for example, is a story that only exists because I wrote and kept trying to revise this 30-page story that was completely unrelated to “Food for the Common Cold.” And it was through that story that I saw this strange gap about Frick and Mom’s relationship. If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have written “Food for the Common Cold.” So on that side—the art, the writing, putting in the time—there’s no such thing as failure. It’s just work. It’s just writing. You’re crawling until you can get to a place where you can run, and then you slow down again.
On the business side of submitting, failure becomes a subjective thing. Whose standards are being used to dictate if something’s failed? The market? The fact that you’re not getting pieces accepted? It’s just a weird place. But nonetheless, it’s one that eats at writers and can get in the way of them writing, which is why if we’re going to write, we need to stay in that other place where we know that failure is just an illusion until we’re ready to send stuff out and hopefully somebody likes it. And there are people out there who will like it. It’s just about persistence and determination and not giving up. I spent like eight or nine years submitting to magazines before finally a place accepted a story.
Brad Listi: Really? Eight or nine years?
Morgan Talty: Just submitting and just nos and nos and nos. I just kept going and going and going, and then finally, somebody bit.
Morgan Talty is the author of the debut story collection Night of the Living Rez, available from Tin House. It is the official October pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club. Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation where he grew up. Named one of Narrative’s “30 Below 30,” Talty’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, LitHub, and elsewhere. He lives in Levant, Maine.