On Writing and Failure by Stephen Marche

Dear Stephen Marche, 

When I first heard about your book, I wondered about the title – another book about writing, but this time, one about failure?! Nothing like a depressing title to dis-entice a reader, eh. Then, when I found the book, I heaved a sigh of relief – at least it was small. I could hold it in my hand. Where there were fewer than 80 pages, I figured I could brave it. 

Happily, I was right. Not only could I brave it; I managed to relish it. Why? For one thing, you wrote in such a personal way. Even though this was a print copy, not an audio book, it was as if I could hear your voice in my ear. That second-person voice you used probably helped. If nothing else, it made me feel that you respected me as a fellow-in-words writer. As an example of this, when you relate some of the challenges George Orwell faced (from finding it hard to get published, and then – in the case of Animal Farm – having that work misinterpreted and misused), you say, “If it was like that for Orwell, why would it be any different for you?”

Yet Orwell isn’t the only author whose difficulties get shared. I’m amazed at the breadth of history you consider. I didn’t know any of that stuff about Ovid – or for that matter, Li Bai and Du Fu. And even though I hadn’t known who those Chinese poets were, in your comments about them, you still include me as if I’m an informed equal, not just some ‘chancer’ a term you apply to even our own revered Margaret Atwood. Which leads me to a quick aside: for years, I’ve kept a poster of the cover of Atwood’s Wilderness Tips above the washer – a reminder that even she probably has to do laundry – so I can feel a little less alone in the drudgery of some of the day-to-day pursuits. 

But, because one of the mantras you repeat extols: “No whining,” I will go back to your account of the difficulties faced by James Joyce. Even though he’d already written most of two major books, he was unable to get even a low-level teaching job. I loved the plain-speaking way you put it: “Anyone with the desire to make art with words should be aware that James Joyce – James fucking Joyce – couldn’t make a living at it.” And heck, if he couldn’t, I need to get a grip and not hang my head when I get news that my work has been rejected. 

So then I remember the word you enlightened me about, the one that describes what you call “the writerly condition” – “Submission.” Egad. Synonyms for it run the gamut from ‘surrender’ to ‘concede’. No wonder so many of us are in such a sorry state.  And this glumness results, often from only an email – electronic squiggles on a screen. Banishment, the threat of imprisonment or torture, as so many great writers have suffered, I am happy to say that these (so far at least, whew!) have not been my experience. Akhmatova didn’t dare write down her poems, Sima Qian was castrated, Pound and Dostoevsky weren’t the only writers who went to prison. Machiavelli endured tortures I can’t bear to think about. Yet all of them it seems became stronger writers for their experiences. How? By another word you remind us of frequently: Perseverance. I like the way you put it, using a metaphor that makes me think of Leonard Cohen, when you say it’s essential “To persevere through the condition of total rejection … [and] to keep throwing yourself against the door so that a crack may allow light in.” And then you call that “strength.”

And I suppose that word really sums up why I’m writing to you – to thank you for all the reminders about strength – about persevering and continuing to put words on the page. Because, yes, that’s what we do. 

Yours truly, 


P.S. I’m glad I waited for the rest of the book to ‘settle’ before I read the Epilogue. It then made perfect sense. And I’m also very glad that this manuscript of yours wasn’t one of the many that gets rejected. 

About the Author

Stephen Marche is a novelist, essayist and cultural commentator. He is the author of half a dozen books, and has written opinion pieces and essays for The New Yorker, the New York TimesThe AtlanticEsquireThe Walrus and many others. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children. 

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Feb. 14 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 128 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771965169
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771965163

Heidi Greco lives and writes in Surrey, BC on the territory of the Semiahmoo Nation and land that remembers the now-extinct Nicomekl People. Her most recent book, Glorious Birds (from Vancouver's Anvil Press) is an extended homage to one of her favourite films, Harold and Maude, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. More info at her website, heidigreco.ca

(Photo credit: George Omorean)