On Voice, Failure, and Persistence
I’ve been reading a lot of prose this summer: William Gay, Tom Franklin, Charles Frazier, Larry Brown, all southern novelists who have a love for the land and whose work reflects that love. I’m working on a book, myself, and I look to these writers for guidance and inspiration. And as much as I love reading their work, however, I often find myself simply overwhelmed, and I sink into this pit of self-doubt. I worry that I’ll never be as good a writer as any of these guys, and I think Why try?
This is a hard place for any writer to inhabit. On the one hand, I need the inspiration. When I study how Larry Brown seamlessly intertwines the third-person narrative voice with the character’s voice, I am driven to try something similar in my own prose. At the same time, I think, “If Brown did it this way, when why would you even try? He’s a master. You’re a journeyman, at best.”
There is no easy answer here. I’m driven to imitate Brown and Gay and Franklin and Richard Hugo and Yusef Komunyakaa and numerous other writers for the same reason I imitate Slash and Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar: the voice is one-of-a-kind; an irresistible charm comes over me when I hear it. No, I’ll never write a Larry Brown character any more than I’ll play a solo exactly as Slash does. But in my imitation, I slowly figure out my own voice, who I am on the page.
Poets talk a lot about voice, but fiction writers have a voice, too, a way of writing prose that is unquestionably their own. This voice is not something slap-dash, something thrown together. No matter how “natural” it sounds, I believe that this voice emerges from the wisdom accrued through revision and failure. The more you write, the more you fail. The more you fail, the more you learn. Then, you fail again, and, to quote Samuel Beckett, you fail better. And you fail better. And you fail better again.
I’m very hard on myself, and I don’t handle failure well. This probably explains why writing prose is hard for me. I’ve spent the better part of my writing career writing and reading poetry, and I think that I’ve come to some understanding of it. I am by no means a perfect poet (God, who is?), but I think I understand the genre, and I have an understanding of my own strengths and (many) weaknesses as a poet. Learning to write poetry was/is for me a process of failure, too. I have twice as many (perhaps three times as many) abandoned poems as I do successful poems. When I get frustrated writing prose (as I have been of late), it’s helpful to remember those failures that I’ve had as well as the failures that have yet to come.
Whitman said “Vivas for those who have failed.” He could have been talking to writers and artists everywhere. He likely was.
I’m still struggling to learn how to write prose. But I think, if there’s one thing that any successful writer has in common, it’s this: a damned, hard-headed, dogged persistence. You write, you fail, and you write again. Back to it. The page is waiting.
Larry Brown on Apprenticeship
It’s important to have people to look up to at the beginning of your career. You have to find people who have found their own way of saying the things that you yourself want to say. It never comes easy, and I believe now that it may even get harder the older you get and the more you write. The apprentice approaches the pinnacle slowly, with much stumbling and cursing, constantly going down one-way streets and taking off on tangents that go nowhere. The incredible amount of things that have to be written and then thrown away is probably what daunts a lot of young writers.
From "Harry Crews: Mentor and Friend," Billy Ray's Farm: Essays from a Place Called Tula, Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2001
An interesting and heated conversation took place on my Facebook page a couple of days ago after I posted this message:
Holy cow. I just some ink on a rejection from a top tier journal. Very nice. It's rare that a rejection makes me feel good, but this one did.
I won’t go into the specifics of the conversation nor will I name the journal, but I will say that the vehemence and anger displayed in the conversation didn’t surprise me. There are a lot of poets writing today, and there are a lot of journals out there featuring many different kinds of aesthetics. Some poets struggle to find an audience. Other poets seem touched by the poetry gods and become well-known very quickly.
I’ll be honest: it’s hard not to be jealous when I see poets whom I’ve known a long time publishing their third and fourth book and getting featured in The Southern Review, Paris Review, and Ploughshares (for example). I want that kind of readership, too. I want that kind of audience for my work. And I want the respect of my peers. [Edited to add: I ultimately want to write well-crafted poems. History can decide if they're 'great.']
Perhaps, too, I’ll confess, that I’m trying to build a career.
“Careerism” is a nasty word in poetry circles. It carries a stink with it that keeps lots of artists at a distance. Indeed, some poets I’ve met even hold that to think about a “book” of poems as opposed to a single poem reveals (in me) an ugly need to be known. I disagree. There’s nothing wrong with a writer building a career. For some reasons, however, I’ve found that poets in particular bristle at this notion.
The reasons are probably varied, and I can only guess at a few, and I think those reasons have something to do with money. Is poetry somehow more “pure” that prose? Does the lack of money associated with poetry indicate that the genre is somehow immune from the marketplace of ideas? Make no mistake: I do believe that capitalism hurts art. One cannot reduce a work of art to its monetary value any more than one can measure the affect a work of art has on a viewer or reader.
At the same time, U.S. poets live in this system. Furthermore, many of us are academics, too, and our careers as writers are entangled (for better or for worse) with our careers as teachers. My poetry publications have a direct effect upon my teaching career—I teach composition, mainly, not creative writing (for the record). This fact sometimes troubles me—well, to be honest, this often troubles me. Still, I understand that this is how things are.
However, building a writing career is most certainly not why I started writing. I started writing at first just to express myself. Like most kids, I felt strange and awkward, and writing (songs and stories at first) gave me an outlet to try to understand my place in the world. I decided to pursue writing in school because I couldn’t imagine a life that didn’t place writing at the center of what I did. And now, though my writing career has become a part of my teaching career, I don’t sit down thinking, “Okay, that tenure review is coming up. Let me compose a new poem.” I doubt any writer thinks this way.
But to return to that Facebook conversation: my feelings about that rejection had nothing to do with my career as a writer or an academic. I respect that nameless journal greatly. I respect its editors and the writers who publish there. I respect its long history. I would love to be included in its pages, and the fact that the editors took a few precious moments to praise my work and invite a resubmission means a lot to me.
I hate to think that the poetry world has gotten so jaded that we all scoff at the notion of publication. Good and bad writing does exist, and publication can be a kind of validation. But at the end of the day, it’s just the page and me, trying to make sense of the world, trying to make meaning with syllables.
O for a muse of fire,