The Writing Life and Dealing with the Inevitable Failures (from the New York Times)

[An excerpt from an honest and compassionate look at the terrors and disappointments unique to the writing life.  Recommended!]


 “In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows promise, you keep writing anyway.”–Junot Diaz NYT


“Failure, Writing’s Constant Companion”


Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing

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Failure in writing is not like failure in business, where you lose money and have to fire everyone and remortgage your house. When you’re a writer, most of the time, people don’t depend on you to succeed. Although you may starve if your books don’t sell, or your agent might yell at you for producing something that three people will read, failure in writing is more of an intimately crushing day-to-day thing. O.K., minute-to-minute. Measured against your ideal of yourself.

In the last few years, Philip Roth and Alice Munro decided to put down their pens.

Munro told this newspaper that she didn’t know if she had the energy “to do this anymore.” And Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” Roth and Munro have produced many admirable works. They should be allowed to stop failing on a daily basis, if they want to, in their eighth decades.

But the rest of us are stuck.

In writing, failing is not dramatic. There will be no news headline: ANOTHER WRITER FAILED TODAY.

Sure, there are garden-variety failures, the ones everyone can see, like not getting rave reviews, prizes, cushy teaching jobs, fellowships in Tuscany and membership in prestigious intellectual societies. But these are nothing compared to the other ones, invisible to the civilian eye.

Failure in writing is not just external failure. Not having produced a best seller by 23 (or 36 or 54) is the least of your worries.

By the way, unless you come from a family of writers, you can be certain that your family will have no idea what you’re talking about when you mention that you’re failing every day. They will encourage you to become a radiologist. They mean well. They are likely to be worried about the thing that most families are worried about, namely your ability to support yourself in the fashion to which you are accustomed.

But for writers, early on, other kinds of failure demand attention. There is the logistical failure of getting to your desk. Then there is the failure of not being able to stay there. John McPhee once famously tied himself to his chair, which strikes me as a good way to deal with the torpor that overcomes many writers when faced with the blank page or screen.

But even if you succeed here, you can’t stop your mind from getting up and going over to the couch. Another potential failure: pacing. Writing is not like bingeing on “Breaking Bad.” You have to do it every day. Whatever happens.

Sometimes, especially when you’re a young writer, you pay too much attention to what other people think. You worry too much that you are a failure. You measure yourself against other people’s possessions and talent.

Yet, perversely, you have to be inured to success. If you succeed (in the marketplace) right away, you risk failing your talent before you even know what that means. If you don’t succeed, you risk a failure of nerve.

I remember the first time I felt like a bona fide failure as a writer. This feeling of nausea washed over me, but it was confusing because it appeared at the exact moment when I was supposed to be feeling success. It was when I finished my first book and realized there were some things in it that I hated, things that were made all the more hideous to me whenever people said, “You must have such a sense of accomplishment.” I asked a more experienced writer if she ever got over this nauseated feeling. She didn’t reassure me. “Oh, that never goes away.” ….

Read the rest of this terrific piece at

Fascinating up close and personal interviews with major writers on this subject of the writer’s malaise avaIlable FREE in the archives of the legendary archive of the Paris Review Interviews.  All the big shots are there, and are candid, ruthlessly honest, about their languor and pain in dealing with the constant haunting feeling of failure. 

Rachel Shteir is the author, most recently, of “The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting.”

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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13 Responses to The Writing Life and Dealing with the Inevitable Failures (from the New York Times)

  1. robert okaji says:

    So I’m not alone in my inadequacy? 🙂


    • EVERY writer worth his or her salt struggles with this daily. You’re not inadequate, Robert! It’s only a feeling and normal frustration-goes with the territory, occupational hazard!


      • robert okaji says:

        My frustration lies mostly with my inability to squeeze four hours of work into one hour. Sigh.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It can’t be forced or rushed. Nothing great was written while a writer was watching the clock. Don’t push. Keep at it every day with the time you have. Some days it will be a raging river, some days a trickle. Keep a notebook with you all the time to catch inspiration on the fly. Solutions to problems in a manuscript and insights and phrases occur at odd moments when you are not in front of your computer. Your imagination/unconscious never sleeps, works in the background while you are doing other things


  2. Ain’t it the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad that you posted this. Somehow, it’s motivating to know I am not alone! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Carol. Yes. It is a common affliction. All committed writers suffer from it. Yes, helps to know you’re not alone, helps you to shake it off, deal with it and keep w-r-i-t-i-n-g. After a while of living with this chronic unease (“nausea”) and keeping at it, it’s less of a bother, but it’s still there

      Liked by 1 person

  4. lahowlett says:

    Thanks for posting this, Margaret. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • The truth can be somewhat de-fanged and better endured by facing it 😉 I always feel repulsed and disgusted by my first and second drafts (at the very least) of my new books and I’ve been at it for years, have had my share of some recognition and success. Look at Phillip Roth! Alice Munro! Just a fact of the writer’s life

      Liked by 1 person

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