Joyce Carol Oates on Failure

JCO essentially says that writers, are secretly attracted to failure, and they have good reason to be.

I know for the writer struggling to finish their latest story or struggling to get published this may sound crazy.

You’re probably thinking that only a writer as successful as JCO could say such a thing.

But every writer we perceive as successful has had plenty of failure to back up their success. Regardless of how much success a writer like JCO has, she admits that “Nothing gets easier with the passage of time, not even the passing of time.”

So even if we have dreams of grandiose fame and fortune, we can rest assured that living as a writer, no matter how rewarding or fulfilling it may be, will always be a demanding process. Writing is a creative act, and the act of creating doesn’t magically become easier just because we’ve been published and our most recent novel was turned into a hit movie.

I understand why we may initially recoil at the idea of embracing failure. JCO points out that we live in a society where expecting failure is deemed un-American. We’re the nation of hope and manifest destiny. This might be why she asks the question “Is the artist secretly in love with failure?”

Not a love of failure because failing is so great, but because there could be “something dangerous about success.”

I know you’re doubtful, but how often have we seen people throughout history in all fields let success go to their heads and ruin their careers? From the singer who has a smash hit and is forced to keep producing the same kind of music to appease her record label, to the athlete who’s so busy lining up endorsements and shooting commercials that she neglects training, we’ve seen countless stars implode under the pressure of their own acclaim.

Beyond a possible love of failure or leeriness of success, JCO speculates that “the addictive nature of incompletion and risk” really drives us to continue working. She adds that writers have “An affinity for risk, danger, mystery, a certain derangement of the soul; a craving for distress, the pinching of the nerves, the not-yet-voiced; the predilection for insomnia; an impatience with past selves and past creations that must be hidden from one’s admirers.”

But to get to a more practical application, she asks the question:

“Isn’t there, perhaps, a very literal advantage, now and then, to failure?–a way of turning even the most melancholy of experiences inside out, until they resemble experiences of value, of growth, of profound significance?”

I say yes, and I’m sure you can acknowledge moments in your life that initially seemed disastrous but ended positively.

JCO sheds light on four practical reasons to accept failure, if not wholly embrace it.

1:“An interesting failure has more value than a too-obvious success.” JCO quotes another writer here, but the idea is that any experience that teaches you something is more valuable than an experience that makes you feel great but doesn’t offer any wisdom.

2: “James Joyce was protected by the unpopularity of his work.” Think of it this way: In the early years, your writing may not be very good, and years from now you’ll look back with relief that you were spared the embarrassment of having your weakest work distributed to the masses. By delaying success, you increase the chances that your first introduction to the world will present a much more capable writer.

3: The more we expect a piece of writing to fail, or the less likely it is to succeed, the more freedom we take to do what we really desire and experiment, which stretches our skill and creativity as writers. These are the exercises, journaling, and general writing we do “just for fun” or “just playing around.” In these instances we are actually able to accept failure almost humorously.

4: “Success is distant and illusory, failure one’s loyal companion, one’s stimulus for imagining that the next book will be better, for, otherwise, why write?” If we reach perfection on the first try, if there’s nothing more to strive for, we lose the magic of the process.

To close, I’ll leave you with a question and answer that don’t correspond in the essay as JCO has written it, but that I think are effective together:

Will one fail? is a question less appropriate than Can one succeed?

The writer, in the end, can have only him/herself for measurement.

We know we will fail. Every writer does at several points throughout their career. But not every aspiring writer succeeds. Ultimately, however, you succeeded when you say you’ve succeeded. The standard of success is yours to set.

That’s how I understand Joyce Carol Oates’s essay on failure.

What are your views on success and failure?