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Joyce Carol Oates & Notes On The Failure Of Writing

Writers love to write. They have to because if they didn’t love the process, the rest would just be too damned disappointing. Writers also love to write about writing. Over the years, I’ve read many essays on writing – Annie Dillard, Margaret Atwood, Neil Simon, Stephen King, Daphne DuMaurier, Pearl Buck, Bob Bausch, and many others. I’ve learned from all of these essays, and come to appreciate each one’s unique approach to the blank page they fill with such life.

Earlier this year (or maybe late last year) I bought and read The Faith of a Writer Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates. The passage pasted below made so much sense to me that I rewrote it and pasted it on my writing wall. I’m sharing it here because I think it speaks to the particular essence of the writing experience. We don’t want or like to think of ourselves as failures; I know I don’t. Yet during the writing process, when you’re all ginned up and immersed in the work, you feel lifted above the ordinary as if you’ve been transported out of every day you and into super you. This state is intoxicatingly seductive. Like a drug. And then, in march the tagalongs. The sense that this is not quite right, not quite what you imagined, not quite what you meant to say, not quite the character you wanted to create, not quite the scene you had envisioned, not quite the book you intended to write.

Well, here’s what Joyce Carol Oates has to say on this subject. One of the most prolific writers of our time, if Ms. Oates can’t express what the process of writing feels like to the writer, then I don’t know who can – or should.

I hope other writers (and readers) find encouragement in the odd idea that it is completely natural for us to live within a feeling of failure. Not only natural, but correct.

And now, Ms. Oates …

The practicing writer, the writer at work, the writer immersed in his or her project, is not an entity at all, let alone a person, but a curious mélange of wildly varying states of mind, clustered toward what might be called the darker end of the spectrum: indecision, frustration, pain, dismay, despair, remorse, impatience, outright failure. To be honored in midstream for one’s labor would be ideal, but impossible; to be honored after the fact is always too late, for by then another project has been begun, another concentration of indefinable states. Perhaps one must contend with vaguely wearing personalities, in some sort of sequential arrangement? – perhaps premonitions of failure are but the soul’s wise economy, in not risking hubris? – it cannot matter, for, in any case, the writer, no matter how battered a veteran, can’t have any real faith, any absolute faith, in his stamina (let alone his theoretical “gift”) to get him through the ordeal of creation. One is frequently asked whether the process becomes easier, with the passage of time, and the reply is obvious. Nothing gets easier with the passage of time, not even the passing of time.
The artist, perhaps more than most people, inhabits failure, degrees of failure and accommodation and compromise; but the terms of his failure are generally secret. It seems reasonable to assume that failure may be a truth, or at any rate a negotiable fact, while success is a temporary illusion of some intoxicating sort, a bubble soon to be pricked, a flower whose petals will quickly drop. If despair is – as I believe it to be – as absurd a state as euphoria, who can protest that it feels more substantial, more reliable, less out of scale with the human environment?

Yet it is perhaps not failure the writer loves, so much as the addictive nature of incompletion and risk.

Joyce Carol Oates

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1 Comment

  1. May 7, 2012

    Wise words from a fierce writer. Thank you for sharing them.

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