I listened to the most wonderful radio programme about failure the other day. It featured Anne Enright talking with clear-eyed honesty and directness about her own and others’ writing process. The programme has now been removed from the BBC iPlayer, so if you missed it you will have to take my word for how marvellous it was. Fifteen minutes of sanity and charm, just after lunch in grey February. As my children never tire of me saying, it was worth the admission fee.
On reflection it was not a surprise to hear Enright talking on this subject. With six other writers she wrote in the Guardian last June on the same topic. This will give you a flavour:
I have no problem with failure – it is success that makes me sad. Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do. It is built in.
This is also a delight. I know because I stuck it in one of those notebooks I have been banging on about.
One of the best descriptions of failure by a poet that I have read is by Eavan Boland in the terrific selection of interviews comprising Sleeping With Monsters (1990). Committed to the idea of poems as made objects, she develops the metaphor of composing as working at a ‘rock face’. Warning against the idea of ‘inspiration’ she says the chief attitude of mind she cultivates is ‘consistency’. This, she says, helps her stay in contact with her ‘failure rate’.
She goes on: ‘unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you are doing as a poet. The danger of inspiration is that it is a theory that redirects itself towards the idea of success rather than the idea of consistent failure. And all poets need to have a sane and normalized relationship with their failure rate’.
This brings to mind a key section of Anne Enright’s radio programme, an interview with novelist Donal Ryan. He challenged the notices he received on ‘succeeding’ with a Man Booker Prize-longlisting for his novel The Spinning Heart, on the basis that this was not what he had set out to achieve. By the same token, he rejected similar notices when he ‘failed’ to make the shortlist for the same prize. His main goal, he said, was to have something to show his wife.
I find these stories heartening. They remind me that however grey the day and outwardly hopeless my output, I can say to myself that I showed up for my ‘two-hundred words’ (Enright), or four lines, or crappy notebook entry about a woman in an anorak. Worldly ‘success’ (and failure), based on the judgement on others, is not my concern.
‘All we have is the process,’ as Jean Sprackland once told me.
In any case, one of the advantages of poetry having a relatively small audience is that the gap between publication and reviews is so big that my desire to pick up the pen has usually returned by the time they materialise. By which time the process is safely under way again, as though nothing had happened, like in a dream.