There is Only the Trying: Some Thoughts on Fame & Failure
Here’s a reader favorite I like to re-post now & then for those who may have missed it:
When Derek Jeter retired from baseball in the fall of 2014, those who followed his last season heard the unsurprising story that he’d wanted to be shortstop for the New York Yankees since he was a little boy. And as I watched his last home game at Yankee Stadium, and watched how his last hit (in the bottom of the ninth inning) won the game, the smile and excitement on his forty year old face was still, beautifully, that of a child. It was the kind of perfect, public moment many of us fantasize about for ourselves, and just watching it made me feel like a child again, too.
Yet almost immediately upon hearing of his boyhood wish, I realized something: as a kid I had also wanted to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. And with Jeter only five years older than me, it’s possible that somewhere in the early 1990s—with him in high school and me still in gradeschool and both of us playing baseball in the summer hundreds of miles apart—that we both had the same wish, the same wish to play in the majors that millions have had, but very few have actually achieved.
And it continues: I remember attending a party years ago in my hometown, of someone who’d just graduated high school and was wasting no time driving out to Hollywood to “make it.” And even if this person has made it, it’s still an unavoidable fact that nearly everyone who sets out for Hollywood never does. And that’s striking, I’d even say breathtaking, the weight of so many thousands of ambitions which, every year, are snuffed out.
And closest to home, this situation is true for writers, since just as many have had the dream of being a bestselling author, or just a moderately successful published author, including me. By and large, though, very few people ever achieve either. I certainly haven’t. Yet in the middle of whining to myself about my own lack of success, it was remarkable to suddenly realize that, by and large, this is nearly everyone’s lot, and that in the midst of such self-pity a large amount of actual life, of actual living, had been missed.
I don’t know why it was, at the age of thirteen, that I both started writing a ton of early stories and at the same time wanted to see them published. While I no doubt enjoyed discovering how remarkable those private and isolated hours of writing could be, I also wasn’t interested in the result of that seclusion being a secret. At an age where I felt lonely enough already, writing was synonymous with sharing it and, for better or worse, always has been.
But it wasn’t long until my propensity to write was also equated with rebellion of some kind: my eighth grade teacher made a remark about how she couldn’t go through another ten page story of mine; and one of the mothers of a smarter girl in my class refused to believe I had written any of the stories at all. Feelings of both rejection and superiority are toxic to an adolescent, and versions of them followed me all through high school: one of the cooler, hippyish girls once told me what I had written “would be good, but only if you could actually write”; this while a teacher, seeing me reading James Joyce, said he that he was “very intellectual.” I dismissed both remarks: the first, because I was certain that I could write; the second, because already I refused to believe that literature or art was something for me to hold over anyone’s head so I could feel smarter than them, or for others to feel intimidated by. It’s for this reason that I despise so much that makes up cultural life, since a great deal of it really is motivated by the arrogance or fear of self-conscious people just like me; but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t even minimally empowering to be dismissed or held aloft. For all of my desire to use writing as a way of not feeling so alone, a small part of me no doubt enjoyed that it continued to keep me in that very state. Just as I persisted in considering literature a real lifeline, deep down I also held that an interest in it did somehow make me better than others.
Add to this the usual feelings of those in their teens through mid-twenties, of being underestimated and misunderstood and beset on all sides, and it was hard not see the world of literature both as a genuine interest but also as something to hide behind. The only thing to vindicate my efforts, then, was to achieve the kind of success (or just notoriety) seen in movies or on TV; and the equivalent for me was the fame of those writers I started to read about. So in the biographies of people like James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, I found models of youth and early adulthood which I felt corresponded in small ways to my own; and when they were initially condemned or dismissed but eventually gained a reputation, in my own mind I took their trials as being similar to my own.
At the time, though, I also used the merely-local renown of adults in their fifties, people with badly designed chapbooks, or adults in their fifties in crappy bands, as examples of what I would never become. One image that’s never left me is of a rotund guy in a tie-dyed shirt and frayed jeans, sweat pouring from his graying hair into the eyes behind his John Lennon glasses, fumbling poorly with a bass guitar. Back then I imagined a kind of desperation in such people, who in the end were just so-so musicians or so-so poets known only to their crowd of friends in whatever suburb of Cleveland.
Now, nearing forty myself, it never occurred to me that I might, in fact, become something just like them. And even more: when I was younger and experienced the rejection or sarcasm or defensiveness from people I worked with—whether at a department store or factory, a machine shop or fast food restaurant, an indoor sports complex or gas station—what I didn’t know was that their reaction was no different from the defensive reaction to anyone’s interests, when you don’t happen to share them, whether for literature, music, religion, sports, politics, business, parenting, gardening, whatever. It never occurred to me that these other people might be just as passionate about something as I was about writing; it never occurred to me to ask; I never realized we were nearly the same, just with different accents and different emphases.
Because from the first moment I read them, the words of James Joyce also rang in my ears as the best wisdom:
Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do? I mean that I am trying … to give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own … for their mental, moral, and spiritual uplift.
Do you see that man who has just skipped out of the way of that tram? Consider, if he had been run over, how significant every act of his would at once become. I don’t mean for the police inspector. I mean for anybody who knew him. And his thoughts, for anybody that could know them. It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me.
Even before I found these words at the age of seventeen I already sensed that intellectual pissing-contests were a waste of time, that rivalries and schools and any attempts at dogma or certainty, of one-upsmanship, and even fame, were just bullshit. I somehow already knew then that art could be a vehicle for assuaging the anxieties and the loneliness and the emptiness I felt but could not articulate, the grave and great distances which our aspirations and interests put between ourselves and others. At one and the same moment, then, I believed other people and their everyday lives to be symphonies, but also that I deserved to not have to be around them.
It’s often struck me how sad it is that artists—a tribe so cripplingly self-conscious and selfish and jealous and full of themselves—are the ones to make our art. But just by thinking such a thing, I prove that I’m no different. Imagining again that I’m separate and estranged, or original, I’m just another face in the crowd.
Over the past few years, I’ve recorded nearly six hours of interviews with my mother about her childhood and upbringing. At one point I simply wanted to know what she as an individual had loved and was interested in. What books did she love, what music, what TV or movies? As the conversation went on, though, she hardly mentioned any of this. I kept trying to steer her back to these things, but then I realized that she was answering my question just fine. Books and TV and movies were things that had meant so much to me as a teenager, not to her; rather, she loved gymnastics and some of the folk music of the late 1960s, but even more than this was Slovenian music and dancing, and visiting with her cousins a few streets over.
It’s taken so long to see it, but I’ve been taught lessons like this hundreds of times, for years. As a result of my lack of outward or financial success, I’ve been lucky enough to work and live among people who, on the surface, couldn’t be more different from me. I’ve had to live among them and work with them, and find a way of dealing with that complexity. I’ve had to stop myself from ever looking down on them, ever diminishing anything they do or say, just because it’s nothing I would ever do or say. And it was only when I finally began to reflect on what I really meant by how “unsuccessful” I was, that I came to see how close I was to everyone else who also feels unsuccessful and unfulfilled.
A member of the UAW once told Studs Terkel, “Every time I see an automobile going down the street, I wonder whether the person driving it realizes the kind of human sacrifice that has to go into the building of that car.” And more and more now I simply sit back and wonder how much human sacrifice goes into so much of what we experience everyday, from whoever builds our cars or buses, maintains our roads, cooks our lunches or dinners out, or answers whatever dumb customer service questions we have on the phone, all the shitty jobs undertaken by the salt of the earth so that we might have entertainment, leisure, or just have things.
And this is just the pain of jobs people would rather not have; how much pain and exhaustion by those who have been chasing something they love, only to see it never succeed?
Recently, I combed through an old list of literary magazines to submit short stories to. But it had last been updated sometime around 2004, and many of the magazines simply no longer existed: sometimes the link was broken and went nowhere; or there was just the most recent issue, from five or eight years ago; or the page exclaimed in bold letters they were now accepting submissions for their fall issue … of 2010.
And I think of all those closed magazines and journals, all those attempts by so many web designers to look professional and literate but distinctive; all those others magazines I’ll never hear about that only lasted a year, or an issue, or never got off the ground at all; and I imagine their editors, writers like me who one day, when out with their friends, suddenly struck up the idea to start a magazine, and wouldn’t it be great. So much energy and enthusiasm—and, indeed, human sacrifice—that led, in the end, to very little.
And then I think of all the writers I’ve known. A handful have been published in dozens of journals and magazines, and continue to write; another handful continue to write but have only found a few places to take their stories or poems. And so the question inevitably comes: was it worth it, to try somehow to conjure out of ourselves a voice which connected to the writers of the past, and which stood for all the voices of our own generation and worldly moment, and which would communicate effortlessly with the young and old alike well on into the future?
Because none of that, at least for the moment, and at least for the crowd I used to know, seems to have happened. And it saddens me to think that in the ensuing years, amid marriages and more kids and some divorces, amid moving all over and finding better jobs and starting all over again, by and large we are mostly unread, that these life stories or a love of history and research, all twisted and turned around and made into fiction or essays or poems and meant for all the world, are still largely the private expressions of private dreams. They have dented no heart but that of the author, and perhaps of their spouses. And something like this is repeated everywhere.
After awhile, I understand that what I’m bemoaning here is that most childish of realizations: “how things are.” Patrick Leigh Fermor, in his memoir of walking from Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s, writes at the opening of his journey about visiting a local Dutch church, and then laments his quick departure from town: “Except for this church, the beautiful city was to be bombed to fragments a few years later. I would have lingered, had I known.” Indeed, the greatest meaning comes not in what we apprehend, but in those same moments later taken for misapprehension. Throughout life there is the narrative of what we think is happening, all while underneath it is the accumulation of memory and its impact upon a future moment, which will reveal what was “really” happening.
So that there is no way of knowing, even if we do linger; the knowing can only come later, the knowledge can only come when we realize that, as T. S. Eliot said, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.” In the case of so many writers, or so many people period, and all of their ambitions, the fire was lit the moment they entered into something they loved to do; and only later, after so many of us fail, do we stop to wonder if it was worth it, if we would have lingered or done differently had we known the future. Or that, perhaps, our notions of success or failure are themselves faulty, and that there is an altogether different kind of fulfillment to find.
It took some time for me to find that other form of fulfillment. My own anxieties over fame and failure came to an unbearable point after the twelve years spent reading mostly ancient history and poetry, all for use in my poem To the House of the Sun. While this decade and more remains the greatest creative experience I’ve ever had, there were downsides: with nothing of any great length to publish for more than ten years, I felt isolated and even ascetic; few people I knew cared about what I was reading or working on; I latched onto religious hermits and reclusive authors as models; and I judged those writers or musicians whose careers were continuously played out in public—all of their albums or novels or poems continuously coming out, for good or ill—as something I was happy to not be involved in.
I was seeking, I think, some illusory sense of purity from writing and reading: since I was doing this one huge poem, and some small poems or essays or stories, all of them had my entire (non-existent) reputation riding on them; every statement became final or huge or definite; I thought and theorized way too much. For a while I even found all fiction unreadable, and by the time I finished the House, I had become so dependent upon it and the books I read in order to write it, that I suddenly saw no use or meaning in reading history or ancient poetry, either, since reading them wasn’t “going towards” anything. The greatest creative experience ever had also, in the end, killed the simple joy of reading for its own sake, the present-moment joy and fever of experiencing great writing, or the lives of others. And this all stemmed from my lack of outward success, from just not seeing it as worth it anymore, expending this energy I could be devoting to my wife and family and house, for something that gave nothing back once it was done.
But then I came across an interview with Seamus Heaney, who said that creative life in general “involves a pattern of getting started, keeping going and getting started again. Some books are a matter of keeping going; some—if you’re lucky—get you started again.” This acquiescence floored me, the admission that while some work may be mediocre, and while some work might be considered a “failure” by the wider world, such work nevertheless keeps the artist going. Considering how many people there are who call themselves writers, and how few of them will succeed in any real way, keeping going is the best we can do; and for most of us, just on the level of daily health and equilibrium, the experience of writing, and of our private life, simply has to be vastly more important than that writing’s reception or even appearance in public.
Because there are so many parallels to this, everywhere. A man who is laid off from his job and kills himself in shame because he can no longer provide for his family, is no different from the poet who does the same. To lose one’s inspiration and drive for living, or just one’s livelihood, whether as a poet or mechanic, amounts to the same shame, the same sense of failure. I think of all the entrepreneurs in the late 90s during the dotcom bust, and how many ambitions were ruined, how much money lost. Or athletes who make it to the pros but sit the bench, or who make it to the pros only to shine for a month or two, or just a summer. Or the failed construction business, failed restaurant, car dealership, grocery store. This kind of loss and supposed failure are everywhere. How do we deal with this?
And even more subjective and private: dozens of pages may go into the writing and revision of one poem, hours of work, yielding perhaps only a hundred or more poems in a lifetime. Yet even the best case scenario says only a few of those, not even a dozen, will really ever last. The substance of what most poets lived for, even if it kept them alive—the daily and weekly toil over syllables, lines, rhythms—are nevertheless largely unknown and unseen to the wider world.
And further. In one of his few merely human moments, empty of bombast and judgment, the literary critic Harold Bloom said the following about writing:
You know, I’ve learned something over the years, picking up copies of my books in secondhand bookstores and in libraries, off people’s shelves. I’ve written so much and have now looked at so many of these books that I’ve learned a great deal. You also learn this from reviews and from things that are cited in other people’s books and so on, or from what people say to you—what you pride yourself on, the things that you think are your insight and contribution … no one ever even notices them. It’s as though they’re just for you. What you say in passing or what you expound because you know it too well, because it really bores you, but you feel you have to get through this in order to make your grand point, that’s what people pick up on. That’s what they underline. That’s what they quote. That’s what they attack, or cite favorably. That’s what they can use. What you really think you’re doing may or may not be what you’re doing, but it certainly isn’t communicated to others.
And, it should be said, success of any kind usually comes about completely by chance, and is painfully subjective. There are millions of unpublished writers whose work is just as good, if not better, than Whoever It Is that is now getting so much attention. Any owner of a restaurant, any writer of a novel, any entrepreneur of any kind, is likely to tell you that you might have done your best, but for some reason somebody else got published, another restaurant lasted, and another business is still around while others are not. Writers published posthumously, or writers who after a long career suddenly hit it big, suddenly find rejected or forgotten or poorly-reviewed work being “reconsidered,” with previous editors or reviewers suddenly admitting to themselves, “I would have lingered over his work, and accepted it, had I known.” When John Lennon said that the Beatles were “just a band” that made it really big, and that they weren’t anybody important, we have to take him seriously. It could just as easily have been another group.
And even more: if a work of art remains in the public’s interest at all, chances are it will take on meaning which its creator never intended, perhaps could never have imagined. Even what the artist meant will largely become irrelevant in the face of the work’s life and afterlife, constantly evolving and changing among the public it was meant for. And perhaps that’s the key: these works are eventually meant for the others, but they are probably best created as if they were meant for the artist alone.
There are two artists I’ve thought worth writing about in this context.
The first is John Kennedy Toole, an American novelist who committed suicide in 1969. He is best known today for his posthumously published novel, The Confederacy of Dunces. Toole finished the book in 1964, and the next two years were spent in a back-and-forth with an editor who saw Toole’s talent and the book’s qualities, but nevertheless thought it needed a great deal of work. Toole remained unconvinced, and the last three years of his life saw him descend further and further into alcohol abuse, depression, and finally paranoia, overwhelmed and ashamed at the failure of his book, which meant the failure of himself. In one of the letters he wrote to the editor, Toole responded to the suggestion that he put the novel aside and write something else. His words are devastating:
I don’t want to throw these characters away. In other words, I’m going to work on the book again. I haven’t been able to look at the manuscript since I got it back, but since something of my soul is in the thing, I can’t let it rot without trying.
For years after his death, Toole’s mother sent the novel to seven publishers, all of whom rejected it. She finally hounded the novelist Walker Percy into reading it; initially reluctant, he soon championed the novel, and it was finally published in 1980, and won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize. Toole’s is a horribly sad story, but similar ones (minus the posthumous redemption) are legion; and the literary world being what it is, there is no reason not to assume the same thing could have happened to Percy, and not to Toole.
The second life is that of Vincent Van Gogh. Even assuming that the biographies of him (biographies of anyone!) are limited and subjective, and that Van Gogh’s vast trove of letters to his brother are as much a distraction as an insight, the example of his life simply destroys me. He only lived to be thirty-seven, and only really decided to be an artist around the age of thirty. The works he is most famous for were only painted in the last two, maybe three years of his life, much of it after he moved to Arles in the south of France. The thirty years preceding his taking up painting seem to have been spent in complete frustration and loneliness, aimlessness, rootlessness, friendlessness, and with a temperament that only encouraged it all.
And those seven years of painting were only more of it: more arguing constantly with himself, or with others; latching on to heroes (other artists) or theories of all kinds to suddenly structure his life around; all of which were surrounded by a running commentary on his new ideas, new methods, new certainties, new breakthroughs; all of which were inevitably followed by others, by failures, by breakdowns, by endless reversals. And to the end he was mocked by the inhabitants of whatever town he found himself in, who considered him mad; and his simple inability to deal with other people made it that much worse.
The fact that thirty-seven years of such suffering should have been necessary, or bearable, all for the sake of a good summer or two in the south of France, rips me to pieces. But I realize it only does so because of the emphasis given to fame and prominence, and the mistaken correlation between talent and outward happiness and acceptance, a correlation which anyone alive for more than a second realizes is illusory (yet for all that continues to persist). But the happiness and fulfillment of Van Gogh or Toole in the moment of creation are undeniable, and the same is true for me; the plummet for Van Gogh and Toole (and for me) only comes when trying to interest anybody else in it, when the end point is assumed in being well-known, and compensated. But while having an audience and being published is important—just as for so many people succeeding in business or whatever is important—on some level it simply can’t be the only important thing, or even the most important thing, since so few people actually experience it.
What fascinates me now is how people choose to live in the face of all the different versions of this reality. After awhile even the work disappears, so that as much as I love Van Gogh’s paintings, I simply think about his life. Similarly, I have never once wanted to read Toole’s novel—it’s his life that moves me. Other people are what interest me. Simply other people. Simply the voices of other human beings, and life stories, old diaries and letters or interviews, a good first-person novel. I can’t count how many interviews with poets and novelists and actors and directors and musicians I’ve listened to or read, people whose work I have no interest in watching or reading or listening to, but who, when they speak naturally and answer real questions, are simply lights.
As I said, I don’t know why it was, at the age of thirteen, that I both started writing in earnest and immediately sought attention for it. But with so much out of the artists’ control (out of all of our control), one thing we can at least stop and become aware of is the simple conduct of our own lives, behind all the ambitions. More and more it seems that the art and meaning so many people seek is what’s happening when they’re not trying to be artists or entrepreneurs, but when they’re just living.
Long ago I sought out fiction and literature and poetry that I somehow believed to be akin to religious scripture, but eventually I said something like: I read poetry the same way and for the same reasons other people read their scriptures, so why not just read the scriptures? And only recently, I came back to Joyce’s quote about converting “the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own,” and just shrugged and said, Why not just focus on everyday life? There’s nothing to even convert.
And it seems to make sense, at least to me, that it might be less important what I write, than what I do when I’m not writing. I found myself envious of one novelist whose dust-jacket bio simply said that when not writing, he raised horses, and I realized I had no equivalent of that. I have simply been All Writer, All the Time. For so long it’s almost seemed as if I was living my everyday life in order to write. What might happen, I now wonder, if poetry and writing weren’t the point of my life, but were instead a boon, a sudden bouquet, that sometimes burst from it?
And then I remember the words of an old scholar, looking back on a moment in his younger days when he, too, realized he had let various pursuits get out of hand to the detriment, simply, of life:
My decision to follow this course came one day in Paris while I was sitting in the little garden of Cluny, where the Boulevards St. Michel and St. Germain come together. It suddenly struck me: What in heaven’s name am I doing? I don’t even know how to eat a decent, nourishing meal, and here I am learning what happened to vulgar Latin when it passed into Portuguese and Spanish and French.
An old and powerful thought I used to have, to explain whatever difficulties or travails I perceived in my life, was that I was simply born in the wrong century, the wrong country, the wrong generation. Alongside this, I also thought that because our technology is changing so quickly, what appears in the present moment to be stunning and constantly innovative may well appear centuries from now to just be another Dark Age, a liminal time of great change and general confusion. Put these two ideas together, and you have the perfect garden in which the isolated and estranged might grow. I am reminded of the words Herman Hesse put into the mouth of his protagonist, Harry Haller:
Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilization. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, so security, no simple acquiescence. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.
Certainly when I first read this as an eighteen year old, I identified with the solitary and misunderstood sufferings attributed to Nietzsche; but I now identify with the “thousands,” the entire present generation living under the same malaise: that is, the malaise of feeling alone in a crowd, feeling separate from the closest people, feeling defensively different from so many, and seeking some kind of fame or attention for whatever reason—a fame an attention that will, for whatever reason, probably never come.
Terrified of life as I was as a younger man, I ran from this fear into the arms of art, and despite myself saw great distance between myself and others. Yet since then, certain thoughts and ways of thinking, like flashes of light, have come and gone, have been grasped and then remembered and hopefully articulated here. Thoughts of fame, or reputation, or what might be proper or embarrassing, and whole swirling seas of resentment or self-consciousness buried the simple impulse of creativity, empathy, of simply writing out of simple love, of simply living. As T. S. Eliot put it:
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
 Stanislaus Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, 103-4.
 Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Revised Edition), 163; from Stanilaus Joyce’s notes.
 Studs Terkel, Working, xxi.
 Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts, 27.
 T. S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages, line 93.
 Quoted in Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Conversations with Seamus Heaney, 324.
 René Pol Nevils and Deborah George Hardy, Ignatius Rising, 140
 Quoted in Michael Toms, An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation, 125.
 Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf, tr. Joseph Mileck, 22.
 T. S. Eliot, East Coker, lines 182-190.