Feb 122010

Perhaps in relation to the aftermath of packet one, I spent part of the morning reading Michael Dennis Browne’s essay, “Failure,” which examines failure in writing.  (This essay is found in The True Subject: Writers on Life and Craft, an anthology of essays edited by Kurt Brown, and part of at least 3 volumes published by Graywolf Press.)   Browne borrows ideas about failure from a number of writers as he explores the potential usefulness of failing in the artistic process   He looks at his own ‘failures’ too, and how they have guided him as a poet.

Might every book have to seem to be a failure to the writer so that the next one becomes necessary?  Is there a way in which we can see acknowledgement of a books’ ‘failure’ not as something that quenches the imagination, that robs the writer of confidence for future work, but rather as an incentive to—forgive the hearty phrases—do it better, to get it right, the next time.

He cites the Irish poet, Eavan Boland, whose quote follows. I happen to really like this quote…it makes me feel somehow hopeful about learning and toiling.  From Boland:

I always think of myself as working at a rock face.  Ninety days out of ninety-five, it’s just a rock face.  The other five days, there’s a bit of silver, a bit of base metal in it.  I’m reasonably consistent, and the consistency is a help to me.  It helps me to stay in contact with my failure rate, and unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you’re doing as a poet.  The danger of inspiration is that it is a theory that redirects itself toward the idea of success rather than to the idea of consistent failure.  And all poets need to have a sane and normalized relationship with their failure rate.

I love the notion that there is danger in moving toward the concept of success.  Little of my education, my work life, or my social life accepts this notion of failure.  I do not yet have a ‘sane and normalized relationship’ with failing, but I’m working on it.  This semester should help!  The idea of accepting failure runs so counter to our society’s notions of bottom-line success.  I also respond strongly to the idea of the rock face.  That writing is not only about learning to live with the failure but continuing to toil, to chip away despite the ninety days of failure.   As I’ve heard repeated so often in Montpelier, worry about the process, not the product.

Brown quotes at length a variety of other writers on this topic:  George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Isaac Newton, T.S. Eliot, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Boris Pasternak, Robert Lowell, and William Butler Yeats.  He also uses examples from his own writing, and shows how his mistakes have led him deeper into his own poetic imagination.   This is Browne toward the end of the essay:

It is an old idea that the end is the journey itself, and that in the experiencing and accepting and embracing of failure we become most fully human.  Through daily personal and artistic discipline we can work to be more receptive, even if we often come to realize that the maps we have made are not the territory, that our persistent examining leads us to the conviction that, as Auden says, the truth is a silence towards which words can only point.  We can see this as pathology, a problem, or as a mystery, one to live as fully as possible.

—Richard Farrell

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