At the onset of this Writer’s March Challenge, I wrote about Dorothea Brande and the “Will to Fail,” a concept based on Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” that seeks to name the human propensity towards self sabotage. As I explained,
Each person has a dream, a goal, an internal sense of what would make their lives better (their own will to power, so to speak), but each person’s will to power [is] usurped by the stronger will to fail.
Many people have watched Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech, a video I shared and discussed many years ago. In this speech, Gaiman talks to a group of graduating art students about how to make it as artists in today’s world. He tells them to always keep in mind what they have at the top of their mountain (their life goal). Then, when faced with choices on what to do next, he said, keep in mind this mountain and choose options that will take you closer to the top. And so, put another way, the “Will to Fail” involves all the life choices we make that either take us down or away from our mountains. It also (perhaps most importantly) asks us to examine all the reasons we stop climbing altogether.
So, what do we do to avoid this “Will to Fail”? How do we overcome it? In other words, I keep hinting at Brande’s formula for success, but have yet to offer it up. And so, I offer it now. As Brande Says,
All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail.
A week or so ago, I dreamed that I attended a combo pool party and poetry reading, which featured Dana Levin and Jessica Helen Lopez. In the dream, both poets read, and then we ended up talking in the pool. It was nighttime, the pool was lit from beneath the water’s surface, the colors of the dream were turquoise and muted gold and night sky, but those details are merely atmospheric. The happiness I felt upon waking told me the importance of the dream: that I should partake of more poetry.
An interesting message, given that I’ve been doing just that. I’ve recently read Dana’s Banana Palace, Bonnie Arning’s Escape Velocity, Mark Doty’s Paragon Park, and I’ve started Jennifer Givhan’s Protection Spell. Classic poems by W. H. Auden and e.e. cummings have echoed in me, soothing and stirring me during these difficult political times, while Lisa D. Chavez’s “In an Angry Season” and some of Jericho Brown’s more recent work does the same. And since the presidential election, I’ve attended nearly a dozen readings, maybe more, and found myself grateful to hear the work of up-and-coming poets I’m lucky to know, poets like Crystal Zanders and Colby Gates.
I’ve kind of been wanting to try my hand at poetry again, even though I know this “hand” to be prose-laden, too literal, leaden. This morning I drank my coffee and read poetry and had an eagle-cam streaming online, and I scribbled three poem portions. And look, I don’t know whether they’ll be poems. They’re really just scribbles right now, but isn’t that the way we start?
The poetry I was reading this morning? It was MFA student Aaron Reeder’s dissertation, From the Kingdom of the Lost. I’m on Aaron’s committee, and I started reading it last night. I prefer to read poetry dissertations twice—once to get a sense of what the manuscript as a whole is trying to do and another time to see how the individual poems are puzzled together to achieve that end. But as I read Aaron’s work, I could already see the book in the manuscript; that is, I understood that I was reading a fully realized poetry collection. It had me in its grip, tightly, tenderly. I was a passenger brought along on an emotional journey, and near the manuscript’s end, I suddenly found myself in tears. Big, drippy tears.
I used to cry all the time over the least little thing. Now I’m crotchety and crusty and cranky, and I don’t cry so easily, so the fact that Aaron’s work had me in big, drippy tears speaks for the level of his accomplishment. Once I’d finished my reading and my crying and my coffee, I walked the dogs, and when I got home, I scribbled some scribbles that I like to pretend may go toward poems.
This is where I admit, as we approach the end of the Writer’s March, that I’ve done little else. I haven’t come close to achieving the goals I set four weeks ago. But I’ve submitted some finished pieces, gotten a positive rejection from a top-tier literary journal, done a couple of line-edit-level revisions, toted around notes for a novel in hopes of working on it, dashed off some notes and done some reading for another piece I’d like to work on, and oh yeah, scribbled some pretend-poetry scribbles that maybe just maybe someday will grow up to be prosy little poems.
No matter my lack of complete success with the Writer’s March, I’m exiting this month with renewed inspiration and determination. Some of that has come from my participation here, but most of it has come from working with the four MFA students whose dissertations I’m lucky to be reading. These MFA students, they are ending this month (whether or not they’ve participated in the March) by meeting a huge goal: the completion of their dissertations. Each of these students has constructed a book-length work. Aaron’s is a poetry collection. (Look for it soon!) And I’m also working with a fiction writer and two creative nonfiction writers.
Celia Laskey, the fiction writer, has put together a novel in stories called Under the Rainbow. Last summer on a hunch that it would be good, I volunteered to read it. I was right: It was good. In fact, it was better than I’d expected. Truth be told, I offered to read Celia’s manuscript because of its subject: An LGBTQ task force moves to a town voted the most homophobic city in America with the intention of creating opportunities for education and inclusivity. Each story is told from the point of view of a townsperson (the majority of them straight and terrifically conservative) or a task force member. I well remembered my time as a student in fiction workshops and how distressing it could be to have readers who just didn’t get my queer themes and characters. I hoped to be a good reader for Celia and a sounding board as she worked through her revisions. As usually occurs when I read another writer’s work in progress, I became involved in the storylines and found myself caring deeply about the characters, queer and straight alike. And beyond that, I found myself studying Celia’s manner of storytelling—how she manages to employ first-person POV and show each of her characters fully and actively, revealing not only how they appear to other people but also what their inner lives and most private hopes and disappointments are. I can’t wait for the day I hold a published copy of Celia’s book.
I finished Cat Hubka’s manuscript, The Price of Admission, just yesterday morning and am blown away. I’ve known Cat for a number of years now; I worked with her when she was an undergraduate. As I turned the pages of her memoir, I saw how she’d incorporated the work we’d done together with all the work—so much work!—she’s done since. At the end of our first semester together, Cat met with me. She talked with me about one of her four sons, Mike, who died in his late teens. In our meeting, she told me she loved him and wanted to write about him. Though he is not the focus of Cat’s dissertation, Mike is threaded through its pages, as are her other sons, as are a number of other people who have played important roles in her journey into and through the early years of her sobriety. Because I have known and worked with Cat for a while now, I knew portions of her story, but reading her work allowed me insight into many aspects of her life that I hadn’t guessed at. I feel such tenderness for my friend, even at the parts she may refer to as “assholery,” and I feel pride in seeing that she has something original, compelling, and sometimes startling to include among recovery narratives.
Tomorrow I receive Ana June’s manuscript. I don’t know its title yet, and I don’t know how she has navigated the stories from her life that she may tell in it. In our conversations about writing, Ana has spoken of connections between the physical health of the body–specifically the woman’s body–and the assault on the environment, so perhaps these themes will be woven through her work. And as with the other MFA students whose work I’ve been reading, I’m sure I’ll be engaged, amazed, and inspired.
It’s very late—early, actually—and I’d like to bring these musings around to a point, but I’m not sure I’m going to succeed at that. Obviously, I’m not going to succeed at fulfilling my Writer’s March goals, either. But I want to thank all of you who have written for the blog, especially founder Sam Ocena, and I want to congratulate those of you who have accomplished some or all of your writing goals for the month. I am inspired by you, as I am by the MFA students whose committees I have the honor of serving on, and that inspiration is energizing. I’m going to go forward from this time and partake of more poetry—and more prose too. Best of luck to you as you end the March and the month of March. Here’s a video of an eaglet named Hope fledging—that is, flying from the nest for the first time earlier this month. May we all fly on strong wings. May we lift one another up.
video from American Eagle Foundation, Northeast Florida webcam, 2 March 2017
First of all, do you like how I worked that pre-Easter reference in the title there? Second of all, did you know that several well-known scholars believe The Last Supper actually occurred on April 1st? And did you also know that some lesser known scholars believe April Fool’s Day originated as a lighthearted attempt to cheer up that otherwise sad and somber occasion? (That last bit may not be true, so best not go repeating it to your friends and colleagues.)
Anyhow, here is the final installment of podcast recommendations, suitable for writers of all ages, genders, and religious affiliations.
This one is all business, but in that casual Friday sort of way. Each episode typically features one guest writer, plus a notable hosting panel of writers from all across the board (books, screen, videogames). Topics are highly specific for each episode but wide-ranging across the series and include things like not screwing up your great novel with a crappy query letter, keeping the attention of young children for more than two seconds, and choosing the right tags in descriptions of your book for the online market.
Sometimes writers like to overshare. Sometimes we don’t share enough.This podcast is all about the oversharing. One episode that stands out is perhaps “I Fart, You Fart, We All Fart and Most Of Us Deny It.” Also “How To Tell Your Inappropriate Story” which includes the phrase “he grazed my uh, anatomy” and some background cat noise & guitar music with whispering. Fiction, non-fiction, laughing, crying. It’s all here, sometimes all at once. It took a couple of episodes, buy I’m a fan.
Before I try to sell you on this last podcast, I’d like to get two minor gripes out of the way that nearly stopped me listening to it beyond the first 11 seconds: 1) Whether the title refers to a show belonging to two story makers or whether it refers to a show intended for all story makers in general, I’d like to see some possessive noun punctuation in there . In short, I find the absence of an apostrophe in the title distracting, as evidenced by the fact that I am mentioning it at all. But then, I am also disturbed by the use of mismatching hangers on my side of the closet, so whatever. 2) There are 11 seconds of electronic noise (music?) at the beginning of the show which shouldn’t bother me, but I feel strongly compelled to mute it.
All that aside, this is a good show featuring the usual writerly podcast fare: Interviews, Q & A, advice, readings. So why mention this one when there are so many others like it? Partly, I like that it adds some academic depth & heart to the usual craft discussion without being pretentious or mushy. But mostly, I like that it is a show dominated by scores of sharp, witty, diverse and talented women. Seriously, just try finding a straight white male writer on this show. I haven’t yet. (And straight white guy readers, please don’t get offended. Some of my best friends are straight white guys, really.)
“This” is a hyperlink to a whole list of more writerly podcasts, a list written by someone other than me. Some of it will be familiar to you by now, but I don’t have enough ears or hours to listen to every last one of them. I hesitated to include it here without the proper vetting first. But just like the time I failed at marriage by hiding cookies in the furthest reaches of the pantry to protect Sam from potential poisoning by untested cookies, I cannot win at blogging by trying to protect you from potentially crappy or harmful podcasts through extreme vetting or religious popquizzes (comedic callback & political elbow nudge in one go…Ta-da).
So with that I say, listen with discretion and I hope you’ll find something to like. Or as my mother says, be safe and have fun, in that order.
So until next year, friends–Happy listening, happy writing, happy marching. And many other happy things too.
This winter, Randi and I took a road trip from California to Norman, Oklahoma for the holidays. It’s a long drive, over twenty-four hours, and we spend most of the time reading to each other. Randi had picked up Dorothea Brandt’s How to Wake Up and Live: A Formula for Success that Works. Brandt’s other book, Becoming a Writer, was one of the most influential in Randi’s early writerly development.
Brandt’s book, as it’s subtitle suggests, is a “formula for success.” In the introduction, she tells us this formula has changed her life then teases the reader with several chapters before she gives said formula away. At first, I’d been annoyed – why dangle the “secret” over our heads (for it is, indeed, similar to the “secret” in The Secret), but as Randi read onwards, I began to understand. A formula can only be useful if you have taken the time to understand its parts. And this formula had one part in particular that needed explaining: it was, as Brandt called it, the “will to fail.”
This will to fail concept is a variation on Nietzsche’s “Will to Power,” which my old friend SparkNotes explains as a fundamental part of living, the quest to have and be powerful, a need that is “stronger than the will to survive.” While this will to power can result in conflict, “Nietzsche is more interested in the sublimated will to power, where people turn their will to power inward and pursue self-mastery rather than mastery over others.” In other words, it is our desire to be powerful individuals that drives us towarsd self-betterment (or at least this is how I understood it).
Brandt, however, points out that there is something stronger than this “Will to Power” that Nietzsche doesn’t address, and that is the “Will to Fail.” For pages upon pages, she offers examples of what this will to fail looks like – the person who says they want to travel but blames a lack of money. The person who wants more from life but is focused on raising a family. The person who wants to be a writer, but after receiving rejections claims that they’d tried that and the world had dubbed them not good enough. Each person has a dream, a goal, an internal sense of what would make their lives better (their own will to power, so to speak), but each person’s will to power was usurped by the stronger will to fail. And so, despite what might seem like success–person A died a beloved member of his community, person B raised three healthy children, person C lived a long, mostly happy life, Brandt argues they fail in their ultimate purpose.
Now, I admit, there is a harshness in Brandt’s observations. There is, too, a certain privelege that she brings with her as well, and yet, as she described each scenario, I couldn’t help but think of people I knew, each one doing similar things to those in her examples, each wanting but doing little to make changes, each with another reason or rationale for why the changes were impossible. Each mostly happy and simultaneously dissatisfied with their current state. Since reading this book, I have come to notice more and more the way my own excuses have become transparent as just that: excuses.
At this point, you may be wondering…This is Day 2 of Writer’s March!? Why are you talking about failure? Isn’t this when you would usually inspire us to craft our goals? To be excited? But as I think about my own goals for the month, which are still in the formation stage, I can’t help but feel like it is vital that we examine how the will to fail is playing out not just in our daily lives, but in the goals we are setting before us.
So, here on day two, I offer some ideas of self-reflection.
First, consider the excuses you make for why you don’t write. Do you recognize them as excuses? Do you see them as the obstacles they are? Second, consider your goals so far. Are we asking enough of ourselves? Are we asking too much and setting ourselves up for failure? Are we aware of how capable we truly are in terms of what we can accomplish?
Find some way to offer yourself a reminder and/or clear the obstacles away. Maybe it is an object or a quote. Maybe it is a drawing of what these fears look like. Maybe you hold a ritual and write the excuses on strips of paper, then burn them away. Whatever you do, I think it is crucial that we face our own will to fail when we set forth on the journey of this month of writing.
…and if you are interested, it might be fun to share them in the comments below.
Then, when you are done, don’t let your meditation on the will to fail become another excuse for why you are not writing. Get to it. Tell us how it goes.