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#36: No Failure, Only Practice
Gordon Lish, Hilary Mantel, Bonnie Nadzam, Matthew Salesses, Jane Smiley, Melissa Febos, Montesquieu
Welcome to the newly refreshed design for my newsletter, by which I mean: a design! When I started this in March 2020, I never quite came up with a title for my project, and the longer I let that go, the harder it was to figure out what the title should be. (For fiction, I either have the title before I start writing or else I never get it right.) But earlier this fall I gave an endnote address at The Loft’s Wordsmith Conference in Minneapolis, a talk I titled “No Failure, Only Practice”—and afterward I realized that might be a good title for this newsletter too. I hope you enjoy the new look as much as I do! My friend Leah Newsom made the logos and other graphics, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the gift of her talents. (She has a great story in the new issue of Conjunctions that you should read ASAP.)
In lieu of the usual essay and exercise this month, I’ve sent along the text of that Minneapolis speech, in hopes that it’ll be useful and enjoyable to you too. Before that, you’ll find my very informal list of favorite books published this year, sent along with the usual caveat that I only included books I’ve finished reading. This list is by no means comprehensive: there are so many 2022 books stacked around my office that I desperately want to read or finish but just haven’t gotten to yet. I’ve also blurbed a bunch of 2023 books that I loved, which I shouldn’t list yet (but might talk about next month), and of course so many of my favorite reads this year came from 2021 and before. (I keep a log of everything I read at my website, if you’re curious.)
As always, I hope your writing is going well, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. Be safe, be kind, and have fun with your reading and writing! See you in the new year!
Twenty-two of my favorite new books published in 2022:
#36: No Failure, Only Practice
An endnote address in thirteen parts, given at The Loft’s Wordsmith Conference, Minneapolis, MN, September 2022
One: Every book in existence is the final product of a process as simple as "effort expressed over time.
You might write an hour a day for a year. You might write fifteen minutes a day for ten years. You might write an entire draft in a glorious month-long residency, if you're lucky enough to be able to do such a thing. However much you write or don’t write, time is always passing. You decide how much effort you can afford to give on any particular day. If you write 500 words a day, five days a week—that's two double-spaced pages of Times New Roman—you'll write 130,000 words a year. It's more than enough!
The year before I went to grad school, I was managing a Mongolian BBQ restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working fifty hours a week with a difficult-to-predict schedule. Desperate to get some writing done too, I decided that I'd write five days a week, two hours per session. For the first time, I treated those writing hours the same way I did my day job: I put them on the calendar, I moved the rest of my life around them, and I got them done. I made more progress that year than in any other up to that point, and by the end of that year I was writing the first stories that would appear in my first book, stories that felt of an entirely different caliber than what had come before. What changed? Maybe only that I got so much sustained practice that year.
Ever since, I've maintained some version of that first successful writing habit, adapting it to whatever else my life contains. These days, I try to write after breakfast for a couple hours, at least Monday through Friday. Some weeks I do a little more, some weeks a little less, but more often than not, I get some time in. Some days I feel more like writing than others; no matter how I feel, I try to stay at the desk.
Given a long enough timeline, habits and routine always beat inspiration. Cultivate good practices, good modes of thought and modes of attention. The habits you make while you're writing your first book might last you the rest of your writing life.
Two: You become the writer who can write the book you want to write by writing the book you want to write.
Many of the aspiring writers I meet have one specific book in mind that they'd like to write, the imagined book that called them to sit down at the keyboard in the first place—but when I first meet them, these people are often not writing this desired book, but something else.
These writers, some of whom may be us, they worry that they're not ready to write this one yet. They'll practice on short stories first, maybe write a different novel, a different memoir. Sometimes months or years go by, and even if they’re writing steadily, they still haven't begun the book they want to write most, because they don't want to ruin their one perfect idea by trying. It means too much to risk, they say.
But here's the secret: no one knows how to write the book they're writing, not when they start. I've published nine books and written several more and every one was its own puzzle. There were always times where I pondered quitting or believed that I had ruined whatever material I'd started with. But for the books that succeeded, I kept working, kept tinkering and researching and studying and finding new kinds of joy and possibility in the pages—and one day, maybe later in the process than I'd have liked, I became the writer who could write the book I'd been writing for years.
All this is to say: If you do not write the most urgent book you have in you, you will never become the person who can. You might as well get started.
Three: Be a verb, not a noun: be writing, not a writer.
It's sometimes hard to claim the nouns writer or novelist or author early on in your career—and even later, when things aren't going well and you wonder if you'll ever publish again, you might begin to doubt you ever were a "real writer." One problem is that these nouns are identities that seem to have specific definitions, ones we sometimes fear we don't meet, especially if writer or novelist or author isn't our full-time occupation. (And let's be honest, it isn't going to be for most people.)
Try thinking of yourself through the verbs you're enacting, instead of the nouns you're trying to be: after all, one is either writing or one is not. Every time you write is a success, and to successfully do so relies in no way on external validation or other people's agreement with the identity you've chosen to pursue. (Thanks to Bonnie Nadzam for introducing me to this idea!)
You can only control what you can control, but do control it, when you can: I am writing is always there for the taking, anytime you want to make it true.
Four: Writing can and should make you a student of the world.
In addition to being an act of imagination and storytelling, novel writing is a mode of thinking, maybe the one best suited to my particular brain. I inevitably do a lot of research while I'm writing, often about topics I knew too little about when I began. My second novel, Scrapper, is set amid the illegal metal scrapping happening in the hundred thousand abandoned buildings in contemporary Detroit: in researching that book, I feel like I relearned the history of my home state, as well as the global recycling supply chain, the history of so many Detroit neighborhoods, the rise and fall of the auto industry and the white flight of the 1960s and 1970s and so much else. Appleseed, my most recent novel, takes place over 1000 years, starting in 1799 and extending far into a catastrophic climate change future, requiring me to study environmental theory, genetic manipulation and stratospheric geoengineering, disaster capitalism and manifest destiny, history and futurism. I've gone out to watch bears in the wild, hiked a glacier in Iceland, done some light trespassing in disused auto plants and abandoned churches and schools and hospitals. I once visited a famous western dam I'd already blown up in my novel draft, where my characters set its captured river free.
There are so many ideas and experiences I'd never have had if I hadn't become a novelist. I hope something similar is true for you, now and in the future: We write books alone at our desk, but more often than not they find their fuel out in the world. Every project needs to cultivate its own form of attention, its own way of filtering what you discover in life through the particular needs of the book.
Five: The route to the universal is through the personal particular and the personal weird.
One of my teachers, Gordon Lish, once talked to us about how a writer needs to learn to honor their gaze: to see for themselves the things of the world and then to write down what they really see. He meant this first and foremost in areas of desire—to admit you want what you really want, to admit you're moved by what you're really moved by—but it applies more widely as well. There are so many cultural explanations and expectations we carry around, some of which became a layer between us and our real insights and feelings and desires. One reason to write is to get as close as you can to your own truths, to think your own thoughts, to feel your own feelings. The culture at large is invested in homogenization of want: if we all want the same things, it's so easy to sell those things to us. Writing toward your own particular, your own weird, is a way of standing free—and, paradoxically, the more individual and specific the work is to you, the more other readers will find of themselves in your words.
One of the feelings we’re always seeking as a reader is to read something we've long felt but thought we were alone in, expressed by another in a way we never could've said it. This is the brave gift another writer has given you. You can give that gift to others by going beyond the received into the personal.
Six: There is no failure, only practice.
Almost every writer I talk to wants to know in advance that the effort of writing a book will be worth it, that the book will turn out in the end. This is the thing that's most impossible to know from the beginning. Hopefully all your books will turn out—but what happens when one doesn't?
As Hilary Mantel once said: "I work on the principle that there is no failed work, only work pending: that there is nothing I won't say, only what I haven't said yet."
A lot of what I write never sees the light of day. All of my novels have a "shadow novel," the 50,000 or 100,000 or more extra words I wrote to discover the book that got printed. I also frequently start novels I never finish. Between my first published novel and my second, I wrote two 100-150-page novel openings that I eventually abandoned; between my second and my third, I wrote four more. I've been a little afraid that getting to novel four might take six incomplete books, or eight…
The thing is, I don't see any of these incomplete books as failures. At worst, they provided additional practice at writing itself: any time spent writing makes you a better writer, regardless of the public result. But several also felt like they changed me as a person or a thinker, even though the process didn't result in a publishable or even readable book: often, these partial books did only what writing a book should do for the writer, which is to leave them transformed, in thought and feeling and morality.
Six times, I failed to finish a novel I set out hoping to one day publish—but that doesn't mean they weren't worth writing. That doesn't mean they weren't essential to the books I have published since.
Seven: The road to hell is paved in comparison and envy. So is the road to writer's block.
In my mid-thirties, I unexpectedly became a long distance runner, something I'd never imagined I'd be. One of the credos of running, especially once you start to compete, is Run your own race. You’re the only runner you can control, and so the only one you need to worry about.
The exact same idea applies to writing: there will always be someone who seems more talented, or who writes faster, or who publishes often while you languish in your drafts. You can't possibly have read all the books, but no matter how much and how widely you've read, it might always feel that other people have read more and read better.
Thanks to social media, there may be many such people in view at all times to make us feel like we're falling behind, a whole scrolling feed full of achievers come to taunt you with your possible lacks. It can seem unbearably difficult to run your own race when surrounded by so many people who seem to be surging ahead. Even knowing that most people are only posting their wins, we end up falling prey to a problem the French philosopher Montesquieu described so well: "If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are."
It's my belief that most of what we call "writer's block" is rooted in comparison and envy, and in worrying you're writing the "wrong" thing, that what you should be doing is what other people are. To escape this, then, you should try to write toward your own joy and your own desires while genuinely celebrating the achievements of others, which take nothing from you anyway. Be happy for your friends and for strangers, and especially for those who are achieving some of what you want for your own work: your taking the time to celebrate with them will set you free of your envy.
(That said, you never have to cheer for your enemies and nemeses. Who would? Fine to leave yourself something to feel salty about once in a while.)
Eight: Revision is a gift, not a burden.
The work of rewriting and revision can be a daunting and challenging part of the process, especially when writing a first book: Can't I just be done? we might wonder, after the incredible difficulty of drafting. But let me promise you that revision is one of the ways you stay inside a book long enough to manifest yourself upon the page not once or twice but dozens or hundreds of times, ending up not with a book written by the you who existed on any particular day but, rather, one collaborated upon by the many selves who existed over the likely hundreds of days you were writing. These daily manifestations—the many versions of the writer that have come together to collaborate upon the work—are what, I believe, makes our favorite books seem written by superhumans.
These "genius" books we all love really are better than what any one of us could write on any individual day, but that's not how they were written: they were written one small step at a time, just like our books will be. As we fill our hours and days with the work of rewriting, our fictions become not written by any one self but by the spectrum of selves we're always becoming, even as the novel is becoming alongside us.
In the end, if all goes well, your final book will be smarter and more insightful and more poignant than you are on any given day. There's almost nothing more pleasurable than the moment where the book outdoes its maker—and yet everything it contains came from some particular version of you.
Nine: Own your career goals. (But make sure they're your own.)
It is hard to not want everything, especially all the things you think you're supposed to want or that you see other people getting. But only you can determine what constitutes success for you, and you need to be honest about what that is.
When I was a book editor, I always asked my authors what would make their novels feel like a success to them. If they could only have one thing, what would it be? Almost no one answered with "I want to be a NYT bestseller" or "I want to win the Pulitzer." Maybe they wanted those things too, but what my writers told me they wanted most was often a small thing, frequently personal in nature: they wanted to do a launch event at the indie bookstore they'd been patronizing all their life. They wanted a blurb from a favorite author. They wanted a review or an interview in a particular venue—again, hometown newspapers were popular. There was some small but significant thing that they'd always imagined their book achieving, and we did our best to help them make those imagined successes come true.
If your goal, deep down in your heart of hearts, is to be a NYT bestseller, then that probably means publishing with one of a handful of presses where it's possible to make that happen. You'll have to chase a certain kind of career, more than likely—nd you should, if that's the only thing that'll make you happy. Publishing with magazines or presses that can't give you access to your goals will become an endless frustration: be honest about what you want, and take what steps you can to make it possible.
Of course, so much of what happens to our books is also luck. But you do have to put yourself in a space where the luck you desire has a chance to find you.
Ten: Choose and honor your audience.
We all crave external validation, but you can't let it change what you put on the page. You can't write in search of the approval of others: not teachers or classmates, family or strangers, not even (or especially not) the imagined mass of faceless readers on the internet. You shouldn't write out of the fear of what people might say about you on Twitter or anywhere else. It’s as Melissa Febos once said: “You have to write for the reader of best faith, the reader who most needs your work, and you need to do your absolute best work for that reader. Exile the thought of the person who is looking to invalidate the art you're making; you can't make art that way.”
On the other hand, we all have some audience we want to read our work, and it may be useful to prioritize the imagined wants and capabilities of that audience in our artistic decisions. In his fantastic book Craft in the Real World, Matthew Salesses writes, "You can't control who reads your fiction, but you can control whom you write for." You might start by writing for yourself. You might continue by writing for your own ideal reader, your own ideal audience, and do everything you can to please the people you choose. Other kinds of readers will follow you where you go, or else probably they never would have: As Salesses says, " The writer can't determine other people's limitations, only her own."
Eleven: Networking is real but there is no secret handshake standing between you and success.
It's easy to believe that you could have the success you want if you met the right agent or the right editor, if you fell in with the right clique of writers, if you schmoozed the right reviewer or film producer or award judge. While it would be silly to pretend no one ever networked their way to a book deal—and while there is obvious value in the various gatekeepers knowing your name—my honest belief is that most good writers eventually find their way to publishing deals and other parts of the career on the merits of their art and the urgency of their ideas.
More importantly: Every hour you spend networking is an hour you could be writing—and only the hours you spend writing get your books finished.
That said, when you are in a position to interact with editors and agents and other gatekeepers, you may find that kindness and generosity and professionalism are the keys to the kingdom. Hit your deadlines, treat everyone who works on your words with the respect they deserve, be as interested in others as you want them to be in you. In fact, one of the best ways to "network" is to ask other writers about their work, to ask agents and editors about what writers they're working with and excited about it. It's like being a good cocktail party guest: asking sincere questions about others is a better path to good conversation than grandstanding or taking up all the space in the room.
Twelve: Find, embrace, and build community at every stage of your career.
Far better than networking is community.
One mistake many aspiring writers make is thinking that community is something you do after your book is published. Instead, I urge you to become involved as early as possible, in a genuine, unselfish way. It's always a little off-putting when a person suddenly becomes interested in book review venues only once they have their own book. It seems false to only be interested in independent bookstores when you're trying to get your own book stocked. The better solution is, as a part of your practice of living as a writer, to support the communities you wish to be a part of, by reading books in your genre, writing reviews or doing interviews, promoting other writers or good bookstores or exciting small presses or whatever else you enjoy in your social media. The writers who create the most buzz for the good work of others often find that same energy waiting for them, when their own good book finally appears.
Beyond that, take seriously the work of others around you, in your writing group, at readings in your community, at conferences and residencies. What I needed more than anything as a beginning writer was to have my efforts taken seriously, which is its own kind of encouragement; doing this for others is one of the most important things you can do to grow a stronger literary community.
Thirteen: Publication and success won't save you—but writing might.
Finally, I think most of us have some internalized idea of a moment where we will have "arrived," when we'll know we have become the writer we want to be. But no matter how modestly you set this bar, know that it'll likely move on you the second you reach it. What starts as "If I can just get one story published" becomes "if I can just get a story in a prestigious magazine" becomes "if I can just publish a book" becomes "if my book can win this award" becomes "if my book can be a bestseller" and on and on.
The thing is, by the time you find out any of that, much of what novel writing can do for you has already happened. No one can take the person you’ve become by writing your book away from you; few outside accomplishments can honestly do more. If you are going to saved or restored or transformed by writing, it will happen long before your book hits the shelf.
Jane Smiley once said, "I believe that you either love the work or the rewards. Life is a lot easier if you love the work." I believe this too, with my entire heart: if it was just a bit shorter, I'd get it tattooed on my chest so I could see it in the mirror every morning.
The work, the work, the work —that way lies all the lasting joys.
More than anything, I hope that each and every one of you will find a way to remain attentive to all that is miraculous within the writing process. Enlarge your imagination, deepen your craft, support your community. Find something to love in the work every day you write, if you can. Make your writing practice a source of serious joy and serious play and you will have all the sustenance you need for the long road ahead.
Good luck! See you next month!
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Matt Bell’s novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable book) was published by HarperCollins in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, is out now from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.