Because failure is assured


Recently I have been reading the exquisite prose of Janna Malamud Smith, in her book-length meditation on creativity: An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make their Way to Mastery.

She has arranged the book thematically in chapters with open-ended titles such as ‘Fears’, ‘Shame’, ‘Recognition’ and ‘Creative Solitude’. Each one proceeds to analyse the practices, outputs and influences of figures as diverse as Michael Jackson, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Chaplin, Picasso and Keats. Barely a page has gone by without some of it going into my notebook, or dazzled marginalia. I don’t think I have read anything like it, ever.

Here is a passage that I have taken the liberty of rendering into a found poem, from her chapter on ‘Ruthlessness’. For me it is the centre of the book’s main argument.



(and here is one of the places it separates

from simpler forms of craft)

requires great courage.

Sometimes it is the courage to keep going

in the face of doubt

and psychological conundrum;

sometimes it is to “say”

what many others do not want to hear.

Or it can be the courage to show frankly what is before you,

to defy current convention,

to push the limits of a form,

to risk foolishness,

to challenge the past,

or simply to reveal

bald difference.

And, perhaps most of all, it requires courage

because failure is assured.

Even the greatest, most fully realized artists

can see beyond their work,

to what their work might have been.


from An Absorbing Errand (167)

If you enjoyed this, you may also like the following pieces, on Seth Godin, Mark Strand and Octavio Paz



  1. And now I shall go and read ‘The horse’s mouth’ again. My art teacher made me read it when I was 16. Still the best thing I’ve ever read about the business of all art in any medium. The understanding that the nearest you’ll ever get will be, in the ponderous words of Jonathan Neelands, ‘an approximation to a resolution’. Or the sweetest sweep of a wall you’ll ever see, dissolving and crumbling and collapsing just when you think you’ve finally pinned down The Creation. Thankyou for reminding me, Anthony.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just went and read the preview and I have added this to my wish list. Wonderful wonderful stuff and something I need to read and heed when I too, am struggling through those bleak poetry writing moments. Lifesaving poems is also on my list, thank you Anthony.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Even the greatest, most fully realized artists can see beyond their work, to what their work might have been.”
    I don’t know if this brings comfort or its opposite but I still like this sentence a lot. Thanks for the links too.

    Liked by 1 person

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