Greatest Misses: Writers on Failure
An essay by Jen Fitzgerald
On my second visit to Neem Karoli Baba Ashram and Hanuman Temple I scooped chai out of a large, ornate cistern and sat at one of the communal tables as the sun set over Taos Mountain. I sat with an old and dear friend who I rarely got to see, and nervously chattered about all the ridiculous things we knew to be absolutely true. We gave side-eye to the peacocks wandering the property, careful not to directly engage and scare them off.
This may read as a departure for me—if you only know my work. But those who know me well know I have a reverence for all things. It allows my curiosity to run, unencumbered by fear of loss. The reverence extends not just to the animate, but even the nature of the physical objects around me. How else can one approach something to understand it, if not with reverence?
Approaching something, to understand it, with the rational mind is already a severance. You’ve already cut it away, made it separate, other, to inspect it, judge it, and are likely to only deify later. Because that’s what we do with things we can’t understand—we make gods of them, ruminate over them, worship even. Anything to get them out of our minds and into some intangible realm where we can casually observe.
But what does this have to do with failure? Or even writing, for that matter? Everything, I’m afraid—everything to do with the expectations we set for ourselves and each other. If writing is a discovery, then expectations are its death.
As the light outside dimmed, the lights inside came on. More people began to congregate around us and, not caring much for noise or company, she took to me a corner with a small bookshelf to see if there was a copy of Ram Daas’ “How Can I Help?”, which was partially written there during one of his stays at the ashram.
There was a young man already in the corner, reclining and reading. He looked up at us and then all three of us looked up at the ceiling, the recessed light, and the small body banging itself around, hitting the hot halogen bulb, bouncing off, and then reapproaching as though the burn would be different; dazed or in love or lost.
It did not have the arcane beauty and grace of the moth, or any of the lumbering little worshippers of light. This poor beast hadn’t a clue what it was doing and we could tell. The young man divulged that he had tried to catch it before, to release it outside. After some brief conversation and much distraction from the now-occasionally-smoking dragonfly, we decided to make a concerted effort to capture and release it before it did itself irreparable harm.
He grabbed a cup, my friend grabbed a broom, I brought my cupped hands. We danced around the thing, showing it the door, encouraging it toward the door, reasoning with it, explaining its own situation to itself, and eventually pleading. I cannot speak for them, but I vacillated between this is craziness, to we really do need to save this little bugger from frying itself, to are these people really as determined as I am or are they just being nice? Actually, the determination was written, plain as day, on their faces. It’s part of what kept me going—not only their insistence on the preciousness of all life but their willingness to lay it out, so bare, so painfully, yet with ease.
To extend ourselves, in this way, over a tiny dragonfly felt like the kindest, most honest, and most authentic expression of my-self that I’d had the privilege to share with others.
We tripped over one another, not-so-uncomfortably laughing. My friend took the cup, I grabbed the broom—the young man had the dragonfly in his cupped hands, but didn’t move quickly enough to the door, and then, the second time he caught it, didn’t stretch his arms out far enough when releasing it, as it flew right back in. All three of us deflated a bit but were determined that this creature not meet an unkind end. We persisted for forty-five minutes. I do not exaggerate. We spent forty-five individual and collective minutes trying to corral a dragonfly and return it to the night.
Again, I cannot speak for them, but as the writer of this piece, I must. We stayed in this moment simply because we knew the pain of a lightbulb burn, we knew the pain of being trapped inside a space we could not navigate, and we knew the agony of eventually giving up, which we all assumed the creature would do, overnight, while we slept, and simply find a corner in which to die.
What we projected on to it, we saved ourselves from. It was a character: an empty yet animated vessel around which we all danced. At some level, even my two companions fill this role; all characters must. To be so unabashedly in love with all living things is terrifying. We make objects of our subjects, we animate them with our fears, judgments, regrets, joys, and surrender—we let them suffer for us because no other will sit with us, in our pain.
We were not able to “save” the dragonfly, and I seriously wish I could tell you differently. This could be a noble and heroic tale—still yet. We may have gotten nowhere, saved no-thing, learned nothing but that the entire stretch of time in which we vacillated was a sacred space. Even if the grounds had not been sanctified, the forty-five minutes I spent with those two beautiful souls was almost as authentic as I am, with myself, on the page.
The relationship I cultivate with myself, on the page, is a priceless one. It’s where I give space, take questions, answer questions, pause, think, and ruminate, and expand, and try desperately to hold onto something—something that has churned out all the other voices inside of me and waits and listens for the true tone; whatever that may be. Failure does not exist in this space—it is an apparition of the smaller self who hesitated, at first, to write the truth.
In this way, writing heals the relationship with the self; builds courage and fosters a new bond. In this way, writing can heal our relationships with others. When we recognize the pieces of our selves that we project on to them, they lose their two-dimensional quality.
I could look at that night as a failure, but progress is no measure of truth. I could look at every piece rejected, every deadline passed, or every incomplete journey on the page as “a failure.” But if I am honest with myself, what I really want is to see. To see clearly, and plainly, the truth. And I want to walk towards it with as many genuine people I can find. This feels far more important than a byline.
Small Press Spotlight: Mason Jar Press
Today we are talking with Michael B. Tager, of Mason Jar Press
(TG): Tell us a little about Mason Jar Press. What do you specialize in?
(MJP): We are one of those "accidental" presses. Back in grad school, I approached Ian to help me self-publish a chapbook of mine, so that I could have books to sell at an event. He agreed, and put it under his press, which was semi-imaginary at that point. We discovered that we worked well together and after the project was complete, we decided to ask another friend (Matt Falk) if we could publish him, as a test run. When that worked out, we decided to keep running with it and 6 or 7 years later, we have like 30 books. It's been an unexpected journey, which is also kind of the books we publish: books that surprise us and don't seem quite like they should be in our catalog, or maybe anyone's catalog. Which of course means they're exactly right for us.
(TG): What has surprised you about running a small press?
(MJP): How much I love it? I think that's surprised all of us! I came to the conclusion a while back that I'm actually an editor first and a writer second. I get so much enjoyment and fulfillment out of the editing process! And it's just about every step of it; I love helping to form books and pushing along my writers' careers in the small way that I can. I still write of course, but it's very much secondary.
(TG): Outside of obvious things like limited money and time, what is the biggest challenge you've faced running a small press?
(MJP): It's all kind of related, but none of us were trained for this kind of work, so we're all operating in jobs a little bit out of our wheelhouse. I've learned bookkeeping on the fly, Heather has created a PR hub out of nothing, Ian recently taught himself print on demand. There's a ton of stuff like that that's just waiting for us to have the time to do and energy to expend. And it takes a lot of energy to self-teach.
(TG): Are you open for submissions? If so, how can writers contact you?
(MJP): We're always open for cold pitches and the guidelines for that are on the website. We'll be open for Jarnal submissions in March and then open for manuscripts in April. We update our submission guidelines whenever we have something coming up, so stay tuned. We'll also advertise on social media and via email blasts.
(TG): Is there anything else you would like readers to know about Mason Jar Press?
(MJP): We are very nice people and we really really like books!
I Like Things That Are Great
A great little quote and nice sentiment to start the new year.
“I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don't respect the law. I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.”
– Brendan Behan
What The Hell Am I Thinking?
Writers On Why They Write
Trying Not To
by Seth Sawyers
Ideally, I’m not thinking about much at all. When I’m in it, when it’s right there in my fingers, it’s like whipping down a hill on for some reason an old ten-speed and I’m crossing and re-crossing the center line, fluid as a sine curve, no helmet like it’s 1997, long blond hair behind me even though my hair’s not long nor blond. I’m not thinking at all then, only reacting to the curve, all feel. I’m not the first to note the benefits of this place where you don’t think, the place where, as Bernard Malamud said, the idea is to get the pencil moving quickly.
And the only way that I really know how to get the pencil moving quickly is by telling it like it is, like it was, how it looked, sounded, how it felt, how it feels, my fingers just now on the keyboard, the whole thing like magic, like alchemy, turning my feel into your feel. When it’s there, I do a lot of looking up and to the left, to the wall, the ceiling, to nothing in particular. I’m trying to access my time machine. I’m trying to get at what it felt like to hold in my frozen hands an aluminum baseball bat up in the March Appalachian winds. Or it’s the way my brother Jake, when he was alive, would cross his arms at the bar, all the time rocking on the balls of his feet, as he watched the numbers come in on the Keno screen. Or it’s the smell inside St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Cresaptown, Maryland in say 1989, and it’s old-lady thousand-flower perfume and it’s coffee breath and it’s my ankle bones pinched raw in shoes I hate and it’s hard carpet pounded thin by a million feet and though all of that is mine and no one else’s, the magic of it is that by being very specific, it becomes yours. What I’m really doing is that I’m trying to slip a slippery little syrupy spoonful of medicine into your mouth, good for me and, I’m hoping, good for you, too.
I’m talking here about first drafts, maybe the second, anywhere I’m adding that which has blood in it to the white page. Later, tomorrow, next month, when I’ve cooled off, it’s much different. Later, I’m making sure the foundation’s level, the walls are level, the shingles overlap in the right way. All that damned architecture, the great memoirist Abigail Thomas said.
And that damned architecture’s important because of course flying downhill requires a bike, but what really matters, what really really matters, is that flying. I’m trying to get back to flying, because when I’m flying, I’m trying to break your heart. I’m trying to say: here’s how it felt for me. Did it feel like this for you? I’m trying to get you to feel something. It’s possible I’m trying to make you cry. I’m trying to have fun. I want you to have fun, too. I’m trying to worm my way around inside a smoke-filled living room or a batter’s box or maybe even a bedroom in the back corner of an apartment building long torn down. I’m borrowing winter-bare mountains, cow-pasture bonfires, New York subway rides just long enough to get you to stop thinking.
I don’t have that much, really. I’ve got these few feels in the hands, these few heartaches, these few loves, and what I’m trying to do is to get you right there with me. Together, we can do it. I think probably we can.
Craft Talk Thunderdome
Two writers enter, one writer leaves.
Well...they both leave but not before hashing out the nastiest parts of the writing game.
Today's Topic: The Sentence
Today's Combatant: Gene Kwak
Gene has published fiction and nonfiction both in print and online in the The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Wigleaf, Redivider, Hobart, Electric Literature, and in the flash anthology Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction. He teaches at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Go Home, Ricky! is his debut novel and was a Rumpus October Book Club Selection, was featured in Vanity Fair magazine and Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, and has garnered starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Booklist among others.
Okay, It’s Fightin’ Time!
TG: In her lecture/essay The Sentence is a Lonely Place, Garielle Lutz says, “The sentence is the site of your enterprise with words, the locale where language either comes to a head or does not.” I love Lutz and think that is a great concept—language coming to a head. It means that a single sentence can be a moment of culmination and not just a basic information delivery system. Is that something you strive for in your own writing and, if so, how do you go about achieving it?
GK: A sentence tells us so much. It has the same basic DNA as a story. Beginning, middle, end. And there’s also so much about a position, a way of viewing the world, what the character’s eye is drawn toward that can be unspooled. Also, the sentence can do these acrobatic maneuvers to get you to really pay heed. I remember this Saunders’ story from his first collection where the syntax is just a bit off at this emotionally resonant moment and that odd syntax makes your ears perk up that much more. I don’t know. I go back and forth on this. On one hand, of course, I want the sentences to matter more than as just a unit of utility. But also, matter to whom? How the music sounds to whom? Because to be honest, it doesn’t even make sense that I should give a fuck about the English language. I’m in a place right now where I’m trying to be messier with the sentences. This isn’t even my tongue, so why should I care so much?
TG: Good question! Why should you care? I know that for me, English—and all that comes with it good and bad—is the only thing I’ve got to work with. Can you talk a little more about this ambivalence or hesitancy toward the English language and maybe how it shapes what you put on the page?
GK: Without getting too deep into the weeds, I’ll say this: I was born in the smack-dab middle of the country. I have the word America tattooed across my left arm. I’m a master of English and I have the turd-colored sash and wizard-sleeved robe to prove it. My favorite music is the blues. I’m as American as an American can get. The only way I could get more American is if my name was Evel Knievel. But sometimes you have a face or a name that makes people question whether you can even speak the language that you know better than them. And that kind of relationship to language can be rocky. It can cloud every engagement with possible condescension. It shapes what I put on the page now in that I’m considering more to what degree I should care and whether or not caring is even the right posture. Lots of folks from similar walks start from a position of survival and maybe it’s all right to return to that instinct. There’s a freedom in it.
TG: I think the difference between a good sentence and great sentence can often be subtle, something having to do with the texture of the words in combination. What do you see as some of the markers of a great sentence?
GK: It’s got to have a good rhythm. But also, I like a rhythm that catches you off-guard a little bit. In the same way someone like Thelonious Monk or ODB were putting together their own bounce. But I also just love a sentence that’s a tumble of who someone is. All their influences spilling out and over each other. My favorite sentences also often have this idiomatic grandstanding.
TG: “Idiomatic grandstanding.” I like the sound of that. What do you mean by that?
GK: Being unafraid of showing off who you are as an artist.
TG: Who are some of your favorite sentence writers? What about their work do you find compelling?
GK: Jenny Zhang has these sentences that unfurl in her own ways. They’re sometimes spilling down half the page and then turning on an abrupt phrase. They’re a beautiful, “give zero fucks” posture on language that I think happens sometimes when you have this weird dynamic with English, especially as a kid of immigrants. Catherine Lacey has her own swerve; she’s one of one. Raekwon and Ghostface. Barry Hannah. Sam Lipsyte. Sam is so fucking funny, which is hard to do. You can’t fake funny. Mitchell S. Jackson is one of my favorite current dudes. Just a master of incorporating those Lishian aesthetics of hyper focusing on acoustics but applying those rules to heavy content. Kimberly King Parsons takes those same skills and writes about motherhood and queer love, shit that I only know from a distance, but even at that distance I can’t help but be enamored with the way her sentences sculpt out these vivid ass characters. Hob Broun is a hero. But to be honest, I’m more into early Hob. The pre-Lish stuff. Odditorium is just one long riff. K-Ming Chang is a twenty-something-year-old genius. Her sentences do these weird spills and are often about the body and all its oddities.
TG: Lutz also says that “Such a fixation on the individual sentence might threaten the enclosive forces of the larger structure in which the sentences reside.” How do you balance the desire to write compelling prose with the other, sometimes conflicting, needs of a story?
GK: Like I said, it all depends on intent and balance. I love Garielle Lutz’s work, but in a way her characters feel more like coils of language than they do flesh and blood humans. And that works for her. I try to write people that feel like what Barry Hannah called “living tissue” but also focus on how those living people are amalgams of all the language that has passed through them: the slang, the junk, shop talk, second languages, prayers, one a.m. utterances, all of it. We’re all weirdos muttering under our breath. I think when it comes to the other elements of story, they don’t have to be in conflict. I think it’s natural to write compelling prose if the other elements also have that electricity. Are the people compelling or are they a bunch of Greg’s? Does it take place in compelling environs? Are the circumstances engaging? Then of course the prose will follow that zig.
Go Home, Ricky! is available at Bookshop.org
Small Press Spotlight: Malarkey Books
Today we are talking with Alan Good, of Malarkey Books
Tell us a little about Malarkey Books. What do you specialize in?
I don't know that we specialize in any one thing. My primary interest is in fiction, but one of the first books we published was The Life of the Party Is Harder to Find Until You're the Last One Around, which is a collection of poems by Adrian Sobol. That project sort of fell in my lap and I ended up really loving it. I guess you could make the case that we specialize in longer short stories. We have this litmag we make called King Ludd's Rag. I print it at home. There are two stories per issue and the minimum word count is 4,000 words. Most places seem to want short stuff, which makes a sort of cold, logical sense, but I want long stories. We pay $50 per story and sales from each issue fund the next one. It's been successful enough that I'm putting together the eighth issue right now. So really if we specialize in anything it's paying for writing, without relying on online writing courses, submission fees, paid feedback, and all that. It's just books/zines sales, and sometimes digging into our own pockets.
What has surprised you about running a small press?
The most surprising element to running a small press, for me, is how little difference there is between us and the big presses. The difference all comes down to money. They're not publishing better books than we are, they just have more money, which gives them more legitimacy.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced running a small press?
My biggest challenge is just time. I've got two kids and my wife and I are building a house and I have my own books to publish and promote. But it looks like we'll get the kids back in school after the holidays so I'll have some more time to work on books.
Are you open for submissions? If so, how can writers contact you?
We are open in a few different categories. All our publishing opportunities can be found on Oleada, which is an alternative to Submittable we started using last year. Highly recommend. https://oleada.io/publication/malarkey-books
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about Malarkey Books?
Anything else I want readers to know about Malarkey? Just that for $20 a month, in 2022 we'll send you a new book every month, shipping included, and it comes with a free subscription to King Ludd's Rag. Novels by Itoro Bassey, Alex Miller, Joey Hedger, a story collection by Eric Williams, essay collection by Susan Triemert, an anthology of crypto-creature fiction, that's just a taste. It's the best deal in literature.
Welcome to The Growlery
On a fall Friday in 1984, as he was overdue to meet his friend Ed Devney for a late lunch in midtown Manhattan, my grandfather was waylaid by a desperate man. The man came to desperation in a time-honored way—he was flat broke. His grievance with life went beyond bad timing and bad luck. As he told it, a callous god had succeeded in stopping him from catching a break. But he was not without hope nor was he begging. This was still Morning in America and the man was a capitalist.
He produced a slim envelope with this printed on it:
Qualified Estate Appraiser
Rare Coins Bought and Sold
Donald E. Brigandi Co. Inc.
The man didn’t claim to be Brigandi and it was unclear how he came to possess the envelope, which held seven coins in a plastic case, allegedly acquired by the real Brigandi at the Harry Rosen Auction House, in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, he appeared knowledgeable on the topic of collectible currency or was faking it confidently. He said their dealer’s value was $900.00 but retailing them would bring double that. There was some more vagueness for why he couldn’t unload them through traditional channels himself. Bottom line: Today only, he was taking cash bids, no checks allowed.
At the time I had a budding interest in coin collecting, though it’s possible I just liked saying the word numismatics in an annoying voice. In my bedroom I arranged on a bookshelf cardboard albums in which you organized buffalo nickels and wheatback pennies. My grandfather understood the contents of the envelope were likely stolen or bogus or both, but he got a kick out of the man’s spiel and bought the coins for twenty-five dollars. The way he saw it was that if they were real, it was a nice gift for me. If they were counterfeit, that was fine too. Then his encounter became a useful caveat about being hustled.
What does any of this have to do with a new blog about writers and writing? Probably nothing. By the way, thank you for stopping by The Growlery. I borrowed the name from Dickens. It means a place to retreat to when you are feeling out of sorts. We are going to update this page, hopefully not infrequently, with essays and interviews and other features that might be of interest to people who are interested in the writing game.
The thing is I still have the coins, the envelope patched with Scotch tape where it disintegrated over time, and I have made no attempt to see if they are worth anything. The story is just too good. Finding out if the coins are the genuine article or a fraud might gratify some desire for resolution, but what could I gain from the truth that is more important than the ambiguity? The details of the story would have no more room to stretch out in the shadowy middle ground but instead wind up tethered immobile to reality. I like to picture my grandfather, buoyant in the afterglow of his transaction, the envelope in his inside jacket pocket tucked against his ribs, as he finally made his way to the restaurant to have a bite to eat and a few drinks with his pal Ed. Did he talk about the crazy thing that just happened to him out on the street, or did he say nothing about the coins and nurse his little secret while they talked about cars or fishing? I like the idea of what New York City must have felt like in the fall thirty-seven years ago, where a desperate man cajoled an old man on the sidewalk into giving him the break god never did.
To me, if those coins have a value, it’s in the story of how my grandfather acquired them. Their provenance is irrelevant. I love the story over the truth. Or maybe the story itself is the truth. And maybe that’s what all this has to do with a writing blog, after all. If you’re the kind of person who also prizes the story over the truth, or who isn’t interested in locating the difference, then you might like what we post here.
- Aaron Jacobs