Thursday, September 25, 2008

Finding Inspiration in Failure

Kathie Shoop

While I’m sure most Working Stiffs blog readers are well aware of Joyce Carol Oates’s book called The Faith of a Writer: Life Craft, Art, I just became acquainted with it last month.

Like a friend dropping in with the perfect supportive words when I’m feeling down, this book really spoke to me and lifted my glum perspective on publishing.

I’m querying my historical fiction novel again and I have to say I wasn’t too pleased to be back in that position. But, as my father said, “The book won’t get published by not submitting it.” I soon got back to work on a new query, synopsis and first chapter. Having that plan really made a difference in my attitude and Oates’s book helped, too.

Two chapters in particular were powerful for me: Notes on Failure and Inspiration!. Notes on Failure was wonderful—especially Oates’s timeline for James Joyce and his string of “failed” novels before publishing Ulysses. She surmises that “...James Joyce was protected by the unpopularity of his work. He enjoyed, as his brother Stanislaus observed, that ‘inflexibility firmly rooted in failure.’” Though I understand I’m surely not Joyce, I am very sure I understand the state of “inflexibility firmly rooted in failure.” I know my latest book, the historical fiction one would not have been written—at least not in time to be my breakout novel (see I’m still a little confident)—if my previous women’s fiction manuscripts had been published. Oates’s analysis of failure in this way has renewed my spirit in countless ways.

The chapter called Inspiration! was fabu. Oates discusses moments, epiphanies, and thunderous inspiration that results, sometimes, from ordinary life. For example she details how John Hawkes's, The Passion Artist, came to be. Hawkes was in a depression, unable to write. At lunch with a friend, the friend told him a story. A few images from the tale embedded in Hawkes’s mind and his story exploded from there. Again, not that I compare myself to Hawkes, but I do compare my experience. I’ve had those explosions, they’ve become entire novels.

Oates, like other authors who’ve written books on writing (or those who kindly offer their words over blog, email or phone), provide a gift beyond their fiction. Knowing that even in the black hole of failure lies the possibility of success is worth way more than the $11.95 I paid for the book and someday, I hope to return the favor.

Where do you find your inspiration and how do you view your failures?


Joyce Tremel said...

I can't say I find inspiration in any particular place. I could be anywhere or doing something as mundane as scrubbing the toilet and an idea, scene, or whatever will come to me.

We won't talk about the failures...

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I often say that writing is one career where we measure our success by the quality of our rejections.

I found inspiration in reading other thrillers. I'll be blunt here because literature is so subjective. While I was writing, one of my favorite authors came out with a new novel, State of Fear by Michael Crichton. I was so disappointed in that book for many reasons. But at the same time, I knew that my novel (at least the story and plot) was better. I just needed to learn how to tell it better.

It inspired me to keep going.

There were others, but I'll leave it at that.

Anonymous said...

Joyce, thanks so much for hitting "post" on this! It's taken me two hours to get online and I was so happy to see the blog up...thank you thank you!!! I also find inspiration when I least expect it--waiting for the kids to come out of school, etc. Those are the best times and ways for me.

Wilfred, when I first started writing I wouldn't read in my genre, I was so afraid I'd accidentally copy something. But now I find I do the same as you--see their skill while understanding that I'm getting there, too! Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I've found a delightful surprise in inspiration - I've been working at it for so long that I've learned to "know it" when I hear it. My friends have gotten used to me stopping in mid-conversation to say: "wait a minute, I'm going to use that" and it's usually just what I needed to hear to add an important detail to the story I'm working on.

It's a strange gift, but I wouldn't exchange it for the world.

Nice post, thank you!

Jenna said...

There's no such thing as failure. They're all just learning experiences. Unless you give up, and then you've failed. But as long as you keep plugging away, they're all just mistakes that you learn from. My humble $0.02.