On Writing and Failure

On Writing and Failure coverOn Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer
Stephen Marche
Biblioasis (February 14, 2023), 79 pages
Kindle edition $8.79, Amazon paperback $12.56

The small Canadian publisher Biblioasis has done a wonderful job of publishing slim volumes about books, literature, and writing in its Field Notes series. On Writing and Failure is the latest in the series and it fully meets expectations.

Author Stephen Marche tells new writers (he somewhat disrespectfully calls them “kids”) that they should not write with the expectation of fame or money. He says that they should write for the love of writing. He repeatedly tells them, “No whining.” And when he describes the struggles of earlier writers, he admonishes, “Why would it be any different for you?”

Marche strives to take the glamour out of writing. At best, he suggests writing “is like running a failing haberdashery.” For most, he insists, it’s more like selling T-shirts out of the trunk of your car. He writes about the multiple rejections that now-highly regarded works originally received before they eventually found a publisher: Twilight, A Wrinkle in Time, and Gone with the Wind, just as examples. Marche notes that Jack London kept his rejections on a spindle which got to be four feet high: six hundred rejections. Marcel Proust and Beatrix Potter, he reminds us, resorted to self-publishing (long before it was a thing!).

Marche discusses ancient and renaissance authors, as well as a couple from the Far East. He states The Prince would never have been written had Machiavelli not ended up on the losing side of the feudal battles in sixteenth century Italy. He points out that success ended the careers of Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, and JD Salinger. He tells the story of one Joseph Mitchell (I never heard of him) who published a story to great acclaim in The New Yorker in 1964 and then “came into the office regularly for the next thirty-two years and contributed not one word to the magazine.”

The author tells young writers:

quoteYou have to write. You have to submit. You have to persevere. You have to throw yourself against the door. That’s it.

And that, I believe, is the sum total of what I needed to get from this book.

And that is true even though I am not a young writer. I have been collecting Social Security for a few years now, though I don’t consider myself retired: I continue to write and want to keep doing so. Nor am I am a new writer. I was writing stories during my free time when I was in the fourth grade. Nonetheless, in On Writing and Failure Stephen Marche is telling me what I need to hear.

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