Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Promise of Failure

John McNally occupies what is, at least in my experience, a unique place among writers who share their advice about the craft: more than authoring books on how to write, he talks about how to be a writer. They’re not the same thing.

McNally has written three books on writing. The first, The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide, talks about all the things to be considered when making writing a career that don’t involve actual writing, such as making enough money to live on while your career gets its feet under it, how to choose a writing program, how to handle workshops, and publicity. Highly recommended for anyone considering writing as a career, or in the relatively early stages of it.

His second book, Vivid and Continuous, is the how-to writing book. It’s designed to be used as a textbook, though it works well for individuals. It also lays out well for anyone trying to get a better handle on things they might not have been ready for on a previous reading. This is a book I take a look at every couple of years and consider to be on a par with Stephen King’s On Writing.

We’re not here to talk about either of those today, as McNally has released another book that deserves attention from writers of any experience level. The Promise of Failure (University of Iowa Press) is McNally’s examination of what it’s like for a professional writer to have to prove himself again with every book. Sure, there are writers who don’t have to deal with rejection anymore, if only because their names have become so well recognized that people will buy their grocery lists and wonder what was meant by “romaine lettuce.” Did she change her mind about what kind of lettuce she wanted? Did someone tell her they didn’t like romaine lettuce? Did she have a bad experience with romaine lettuce that reared up from her subconscious mind after the list’s first draft? (“Then I remembered when Algernon took me to my favorite restaurant to tell me he was leaving, though he knew I was pregnant. A piece of romaine lettuce hung from the corner of his mouth, waving insolently at me as he ruined my life. Until then I loved romaine lettuce.”) No offense, but you’re not one of those writers. You wouldn’t be reading this if you were.

What McNally does in The Promise of Failure is to prepare the rest of us for the inevitable bumps in the road. How to avoid as many of them as possible. How to make those we do encounter smoother than they might otherwise be. How to find that failure exists on multiple levels and is in large part defined by your personal definition of success. How failure can in some ways be a good thing by freeing you to try something you might not have done had “success” set you on another path where the vistas weren’t as wide.

As with all of McNally’s books, The Promise of Failure is written in common sense, matter of fact language. He has a working class background and has come up through the ranks of writers by having made his share—and maybe then some—of choices he would not, in retrospect, repeat. You know, just like the rest of us. The book isn’t a lecture delivered from someone who has either won a Nobel Prize in Literature, or thinks he should have had those Scandinavian pricks understood the subtleties of the English language. McNally is your uncle—maybe a Dutch uncle—sitting next to you at a quiet neighborhood bar making an effort to tell you what to expect. Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t, and maybe something he says today will resonates later when you most need it. Whichever way, his conscience is clear, and you walk away knowing he meant the best for you.

(Full disclosure: I read an advance copy provided by the University of Iowa Press. I was a student in John McNally’s workshop during the winter and spring of 2002 while he was George Washington University’s Jenny McKean Moore Visiting Writer.)

1 comment:

Elgin Bleecker said...

Dana – Thanks for this post. I do not know McNally’s work, but will check it out.