Ambition & failure

Some of my non-writer friends are surprised to learn that I am in the process of trying to get a new book into print. After all, Water-Rites just came out! So shouldn’t I be concentrating on selling that book and resting on my laurels awhile? To be sure this collection is a “success” before continuing on?

Those who write poetry or literary fiction, however, recognize that by the time a book finally gets published, the work in it is “old.” We are already well into new projects, working on new ideas, using new styles to express ourselves, addressing different topics. If I were to wait to write new poetry until after my book got into print, I’d probably never write another collection. The economics of the poetry world are too close to what Lewis Hyde calls the “gift economy” to imagine we can stop writing, sell a book, live off of the income and then write another one. Even many best-selling authors cannot do that. Poets are lucky to sell 500 copies of a book. We write for other reasons. Need. Love. Ambitions of a non-monetary kind.

Like all artists, poets take risks. Sometimes the changes we make in our work are not well-received. Sometimes they aren’t any good. Failure, however, can be a most excellent instructor. Sometimes, to shake myself up when the writing seems stuck, I attempt a completely different activity. Gardening clears my mind, and gardening offers many chances to fail at what I do. I’ve also tried watercolor painting, sumi ink calligraphy, modeling clay, embroidery, dancing, piano, and many other endeavors. I cannot claim to be remotely good at any of them yet each of these pursuits has taught me much…often through my lousiness.

janis ian

Janis Ian, 2012. Photo by David Sloan.

Recently, Janis Ian–singer, songwriter, science fiction author, and philanthropist–offered the commencement address at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. In her speech, Ian talked about being self-taught; being a self-taught success. And she had important things to say about failing, as well. She said, “We are rarely asked what success really represents to us, or why failure is so demeaning.” Then, she admitted that she herself had always avoided failure but that at a point in her life when she felt unhappy with everything she was producing, “I had to learn to fail before I could find my way again.”

Her approach was to take ballet lessons! At age 33. And she was awful at it, but she enjoyed doing it. Then she attempted other things at which she was terrible, and she learned to overcome some of her fear of failing.

An autodidact myself, even though I do have academic degrees, I found I could easily relate to Ian’s experiences. The part of her speech that spoke to me most was this section:

“You see, I am an artist. I believe that art saves. I believe it is often the only thing that stands between us and chaos. I have faith that while the world is crumbling, art survives. So to feel like my work was a mockery of what I could do, that I was not living up to my talent…well, it was killing me.”

Art requires us to do our best, to be ambitious and strong, to take risks and –occasionally– to fail. To fail spectacularly perhaps, or just to produce a bunch of small, humiliating, stupid failures…like dancing badly in your own room where no one can see you.

But dancing can feel so wonderful, so freeing, so different from writing! It’s worth doing badly. Sometimes when we have less at stake, we find new methods of expression and new ways to keep our fears, including the fear of failure, at bay.

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The full speech is available on Warren Wilson’s site here.

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