Just read Stephen Marche’s On Writing And Failure. I enjoyed its erudition and style, but in terms of the overall tone, I wanted to like it much more than I did. I wrote my own cynical guide to writing, as you all know, and it also had an anthemic quality to it, but I guess that I just can’t take it all quite as seriously as Marche does.
The book repeatedly says, “No whining” and then involes Machiavelli being tortured, or Boethius being executed, or Anna Akhmatova hiding from the purges. Lots of people have had it tougher than you–there’s no particular reason anyone should want your work in the first place!
I dunno. I enjoy hearing peoples’ whining. It’s what brings us together. And I think the biggest grace we published writers can give less-published writers is to sympathize and to say, “Yes, it’s really not fair that something this good isn’t getting any bites!” I’m sure Marche agrees with that, by the way, since the book opens with the following rather amusing passage:
“Is it ever easier?” a kid writer asked me recently. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” She was suffering, poor thing, after a gorgeous essay about the death of her mother had been rejected by every outlet that could publish it. I had no answer, so I told her a story. Just before the outbreak of COVID, Nathan Englander, the short story writer and novelist, had moved into my neighbourhood 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?” At the time, some magazine editor had fucked me over, I forget about what. Englander had no answer, so he told me a story. He had been lunching with Philip Roth once. “Is it ever easier?” he asked Roth. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” Englander was then about to release a new novel, always a toxically anxious period. Roth didn’t need a story. He had an answer. “Your skin just grows thinner and thinner,” Roth told him. “In the end, they can hold you up to the light and see right through you.”
This passage has me until it gets to the last line. The book is shot through with a sense that writing is agony, that it’s torture, that failure is everpresent, and that a writer’s eventual fate is silence and obscurity. That very well may be true for lots of people, but it’s not my perspective.
I feel about writing the same way I feel about parenting: I don’t really see the ultimate existential point, but you have to do something while you’re on this earth. I suppose if my writing (or parenting) life was more difficult, I’d need to develop more intellectual scaffolding to support the fact that I continue to do it. If I was being hounded by the Cheka, I’d need to believe that my poetry was worth dying for. I do believe that writing is worth dying for, but that’s simply not the choice that I face in everyday life. It’s just the choice between spending an hour or two a day doing some writing or spending it watching television. Seen that way, what’s the agony? What’s the horror?
Obviously, writing quite frequently makes me unhappy, but it’s not like people who don’t write aren’t also unhappy. Life contains a certain amount of unhappiness, and it tends to latch onto whatever is happening right now. It’s like I was telling a friend recently, when we were talking about mindfulness. The thing is, trying to be mindful is the suffering. Being present, feeling great about how present you are, feeling bad about feeling great, wondering if you’re doing mindfulness wrong, trying to meditate, failing, feeling bad about meditating, having bad emotions and feeling bad that you can’t meditate the bad emotions away–that’s the suffering, and it’s exactly the same suffering you’d have if you weren’t mindful.
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