Saturday, January 28, 2012

Failure To Succeed Leads To Success

Lately, I've noticed a lot of blogs and media web sites examining writers and their paths to success or failure.
In the past few weeks I've read musings from Anne Lamott (whose Bird By Bird has to be one of the best books about writing I've ever read), Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, and Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer-prize winner who discusses the success of failure on CNN's website.

Stockett talks about how she wouldn't take "no" for an answer and admits that her chronic inflammatory re-writing assumed a personhood of its own. Consumed by her stubborn nature and obsessive drive, she kept scribbling notes, even as she was being wheeled into the OR to deliver a child. She lied to friends and family about her refusal to abandon her book -- absolutely nobody wanted to publish it -- and hid her revising and editing from her husband. Bottom line: the book was finally published, garnered less-than-stellar reviews, but grew into a major success when the book went to the screen, which, of course, led to more book sales etc. and made her publisher very happy, I'm sure.

Now, Egan, talks about how she sold a brilliant story to the New Yorker when she was fairly young and raw, and how, after that success, she felt her best work was behind her, and that she could never, ever hope to attain the same level of excellence again. The article is a fascinating read, offering many useful observations about the psyche's torment in writing novels and short stories. Egan finally did get over herself, and enjoys her work now, even if that entails as many -- if not more than-- fifty rewrites.

The obvious assumptions about creativity spring to mind. You read about these writers, you wonder -- for the zillionth time --  how much of what we do is fueled by compulsion, insanity, severe egotism and insecurity.

Sometimes, I feel freed; saved by writers who expose themselves, who offer a sick reassuring kinship that prompts me to forgive my own writing sins, my fears. I draw encouragement; I learn to view what I do -- and how I do it  -- in a different light. All roads, no matter how weird and wired, eventually lead somewhere. The other human beast springs to mind. In reading about the compulsion and neuroses of others, I take comfort in knowing that compared to them, I'm almost healthy.

And, then, ha-ha...does this mean I need to get a whole lot sicker in order to write better?

I think we are living in a world of lauded excess. We're too busy, too fat, too stressed, too perfect, too self-absorbed, too, too, too!!
I remember a famous quote attributed to Gore Vidal. Roughly paraphrasing, he said something like, "I revise my work five times, which proves I have very little to say, but a great deal to add.”
People used to think five revisions was a heck of a lot for someone so accomplished. I have to agree.
Put another way, the emphasis seems to be on the overly obsessed, as if you only get to be successful if you need medication.

That may be so for many writers, but isn’t it also worth considering that Stephen King, arguably the most “successful” writer of his time, does not go psycho over every single book. He follows a regime, he writes, he writes some more. He gives his beta readers the work, and does some revision – not years’ worth.

True, King is no Orson Welles. But, there is a method to his madness. As is true of Monet, the Impressionist painter who lived longest within his circle, and who was the most prolific and financially successful. He painted with a passion, but he also followed a method of work habits that did not allow for more excesses than he could tolerate.
Maybe that’s what interests me. Maybe you don’t have to be wacko obsessive and insane to succeed.
Maybe all you need is a healthy dose of it.


  1. A great post, Carol. Not sure which author I should take the advice of though; it all depends on whether I'm in an "I suck!" mood or not. I like King's approach. You show up, you do your best, but if it's not working, you move on. Hopefully you learn more at every step.

    1. Hi Deniz,

      I know what you mean. I think these authors are simply trying in their individual ways to encourage people away from massive discouragement. It's really about giving it the old college Rah-rah-rah!

      One observation I liked from Egan was how she knows when to call it quits on a book -- when she can't find the right voice for it. Then, she says, she knows it isn't going to work no matter what else she does.