Monday, July 6, 2015

to stay the course

"I had come to believe what’s beautiful
had more to do with daring
to take yourself seriously, to stay
the course, whatever the course might be."

- Stephen Dunn

{an excerpt from his poem "Always Something More Beautiful" on Poetry Foundation}

The subject of this post, though lord knows it will likely stray, is success. Which I've been thinking about ever since last weekend when a very kind and interested person posed this question to me: Are you a successful writer? (Imagine the tone of the question to be without sarcasm or skepticism or anything derogatory about it).  Well, many of us writers who've not made it to a bestseller list or won a big award will get this type of question from time to time. And sometimes there is an implied "why the heck are you doing what you're doing for so little recompense" within or behind the question, but in this case, there was just a genuine interest in what a writer might consider a success to be.

The ability to stay the course, to take oneself seriously. These are some of the ingredients to the recipe we might call success.

The ability to go on failing has something to do with success. The famous lines by Beckett will follow a writer, will echo, repeat, sing.

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

To be able to endure also this mad fragmented little lifey rat race that seems to generally come as part of the territory of the writing life.

Failures in Infinitives

by Bernadette Mayer

why am i doing this? Failure
to keep my work in order so as
to be able to find things
to paint the house
to earn enough money to live on
to reorganize the house so as
to be able to paint the house &
to be able to find things and
earn enough money so as
to be able to put books together
to publish works and books
to have time
to answer mail & phone calls
to wash the windows
to make the kitchen better to work in
to have the money to buy a simple radio
to listen to while working in the kitchen
to know enough to do grownups work in the world
to transcend my attitude

{continue reading the poem here}

Okay, this is something I find extremely helpful:

From The Guardian, a series titled, "Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure." These are excerpts from Anne Enright:

"I have no problem with failure - it is success that makes me sad. Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do. It is built in. Your immeasurable ambition is eked out through the many thousand individual words of your novel, each one of them written and rewritten several times, and this requires you to hold your nerve for a very long period of time – or forget about holding your nerve, forget about the wide world and all that anxiety and just do it, one word after the other. And then redo it, so it reads better. The writer's great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day. It may not be what gets us to the desk but it is what keeps us there and, after 20 or 30 years, this love yields habit and pleasure and necessity. 
So. All this is known. In the long run we are all dead, and none of us is Proust."

She also says:

"The problem with this spiritual argument is that success and failure are also real. You can finish a real book and it can be published or not, sell or not, be reviewed or not. Each one of these real events makes it easier or harder to write, publish, sell the next book. And the next. And the one after that. If you keep going and stay on the right side of all this, you can be offered honours and awards, you can be recognised in the street, you can be recognised in the streets of several countries, some of which do not have English as a native language. You can get some grumpy fucker to say that your work is not just successful but important, or several grumpy fuckers, and they can say this before you are quite dead. And all this can happen, by the way, whether or not your work is actually good, or still good. Success may be material but is also an emotion – one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold."

Several lessons here, right? Which will all be internalized by anyone reading this who happens to be  a writer. You have to hold your nerve or forget about holding your nerve, sometimes in the same interval. It's language that will keep you working, not success. Success will make you sad. You are not Proust. Success is bizarre and weird and flukey and pretty much effed up. And yet the phenomenon, success, is real. And you're a little bit screwed as a writer without it. Which is not poetic, but true.

Also, though, happily, failure can be alright. Failure is easy. Failure is the process and the process is actually amazing. 

The process is the gift of writing. Your existence in a life of art, is a gift.

"When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life."

- Stanley Kunitz

"Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, "Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody." My dark side says, I am no good. I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the Beloved. Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence."

- Henri Nouwen

As in the spiritual life, self-rejection comes into play over and over in the writing life. There are no magic words to help anyone through the bad reviews, the inevitable criticism, the rejections, the literary shunning, the literary invisibility cloak which most of us will wear most of the time. 

"No person can be found
who has been, is, or will be
only criticized
or only praised."

- The Dhammapada 

When we receive criticism of our work it's very easy to feel worthless, to wonder what the point of making art/writing is, after all. But how about this for smart:

"When you get criticism, be elegant about it, appreciate it, and understand that it's part of getting your work out to the world." 

So for me, this is part of what being a successful writer, successful human being, is about. Being elegant, and finding a way to get your work in the world. 

"There is a vitality, a life force,
a quickening that is translated through you into action,
and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it.

It is not your business to determine how good it is;
nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You merely have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open.

No artist is pleased . . .
There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction;
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."

- Martha Graham

Maybe I have low expectations for what my success as a writer might be. But I have managed to get my work out into the world. I have remained motivated, interested, open, and I have felt more alive because of my stance, my writing, and also my photography. I have found a path and stayed the course. I have dared to take myself seriously.

And so, I'll end with an abundance of photos. So much beautiful light, so many colours at this time of year.....

Along the path by the utility corridor.

My front yard, one morning after rain.

The mock orange blossoms right at the front of your house. The smell is heavenly.

Sunflower which I planted in a pot in the backyard.

The usual vine (which is having a pretty fine year).

I haven't bought geraniums for years. They're the flower of my youth though, and I found myself craving them this season.

The vine taking over the decorative hose guard thing.

From another walk - the sidewalk leading in the dry pond near our house.

And the utility corridor with dramatic Alberta clouds.

Who can resist these lovelies?

Another day, another bedraggled peony....

The vine, again :) I love that thing.

And lastly, favourite spot in the backyard. After dinner Rob and I will often sit here and chat and drink a little wine. For long spells we just sit, in silence, looking at things. Thinking our separate thoughts. Each of us with a notebook on the table. Jotting things down from time to time.


  1. Lovely post, Shawna. I love this quote by Martha Graham! xo

  2. Just wanted to say thank you for another wonderful post. Your quote from Henri Nouwen is very timely. After spending a career creating to others specifications, I know that it is so important to do your own work for yourself...rewards and kudos be damned! (Although they are nice.) Have a great week...

  3. Who is the man with the famous final kick? Death? God? the author of the poem, a different contestant -- all of the above? The last line renders "Beautiful" overheard, and also incorporated and interpreted by the speaker of the poem as the kind of unexpected that has occurred before, pulling the title in yet another way -- always something more beautiful in beautiful.

  4. Love that Stanley Kunitz quote...and Lena Dunham's words and so much more. I want to sit in your garden with a glass of wine and a notebook and a camera. You are so elegant, my friend. I will be back to read this again, because once is never enough :)

  5. Thank you for this quiet and thoughtful post.

  6. Dear Shawna. Exactly that, as you say, you have dared to take yourself seriously and that is why I love your blog, because you help me learn one day at a time, one blog at a time! to take myself seriously. I love the way you describe you and Rob sitting together each with your notebooks, makes me smile because I know exactly what you mean. Love and smiles, Jacqueline xx

  7. Thanks so much everyone for your kind words and good thoughts! xo

  8. Thank you Shawna. Some wonderful quotes and thoughts. The only thing I would add is that while taking our work/calling seriously, it's important to keep a sense of humour about ourselves. It is possible to take oneself too seriously. Perhaps "elegance" is the right word here.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out! I couldn't agree more. Where would we be if we couldn't laugh at ourselves? :)

  9. This is so lovely, and so deeply resonant. Those Kunitz lines are among my very favorite.


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