Sometimes I wish another writer’s words were mine, and other times I wish I could pawn off my words on another writer. I delete, erase, hide. I pretend perfect prose flows from my fingertips to the keyboard. Which all ignores a critical part of the writing process — failure.
Becoming a better writer requires trial and error, failing and learning how to fail a little less, a little better, the next time. The goal of Fail Better is to explore how writers transform disaster into art.
As a reader, too, you can fall short. I declined to buy Midwestern Gothic’s 2016 poetry collection at AWP in L.A. Turned down the editor at the book fair booth. Later, when the poet, John McCarthy, read, furious and full of passion at a Little Tokyo bar, I realized my stupidity. I devoured John’s book, Ghost County, soon after.
John is an MFA candidate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, managing editor of Quiddity international literary journal and public radio program, editor of the anthology [Ex]tinguished & [Ex]tinct, and 2016 winner of The Pinch Literary Award in Poetry. He has work in Best New Poets 2015, Copper Nickel, Columbia Poetry Review, The Minnesota Review, New South, Redivider, and Sycamore Review, among others. Now he can add first Fail Better guest to the resume.
Our interview began with the same first question I’ll ask every writer in this series:
What is the worst thing you’ve ever written?
John McCarthy: I, probably like a lot of people, wrote some horrible things early on in college. I thought I knew enough, which means I knew very little. The worst writing comes from overconfidence and inexperience.
This piece of writing attempted to be a nine-page quasi social critique slash epic love romance for all that is beautiful and true, and underneath all of that was a completely articulated meditation on the meaning of human existence! It failed at all of those things. To say the writing was bad is an understatement. I would say that it was ignominious. And I think I used the word ignominious around fifteen times in the poem.
Aside from ten-dollar words pulled straight from the thesaurus, certain passages of text translated for no discernible reason into Gaelic and Italian, a cameo by my own mother, and out-of-context references to the Greek classics and myriad religions and political systems, I would venture to say that the poem was bad because it made no effort to connect with a reader. It lacked coherence, narrative clarity, and anything that would provide a reader with an epiphany. It provided no new way of looking at the world, an idea, or an emotion. Looking back, it came from a place of insecurity, and I was trying — however desperately — to show how much I knew and that I could craft such knowledge into form.
I’m guessing (since I have McConahays on my mom’s side) that maybe some proud Irish heritage was at play with the Gaelic—but why Italian?
JM: Yeah, my father’s side is Irish and is responsible for the Gaelic. My mother’s side is from Santa Croche in Italy. It’s a small fishing village outside of Trieste. My grandfather was born there but jumped on a ship at the age of twelve to avoid being forced into Moussilini’s army during WWII. He recently passed away, rest his soul, but he had a pretty incredible story.
Unfortunately, I think the main reason behind the Italian translation was to have some terribly pretentious conversation with quoted passages from The Divine Comedy. Trust me: When I say the poem was terrible, it was terrible. Had I been thinking about my grandfather’s life and trying to write something that spoke to him and was emotionally accessible, maybe I could justify the Italian translations for adding some utilitarian purpose to the poem. Unfortunately, they don’t add anything deep, nor do they explain that cameo by my mother.
Is that a normal phase for developing writers — the worldly, impassioned literary genius guise? Or do you think even seasoned writers struggle with trying to appear super smart?
JM: I’m not going to speak for anyone else’s writing process, but it’s definitely a phase I went through. When a few friends talk about their high school or college writing, it sounds very similar to what I wrote, too. As a poetry teacher, too, I’ve read some student writing that reminded me very much of what I wrote at the stage/age in my process.
I think the stage was a symbol of the urgency and the desire to write something down, write it all down. It wasn’t until later that I realized the more particularly and specifically you write about something, the more universal its appeal will be. It’s easy to say things like “Show, don’t tell” and even assign exercises that force young writers to be more specific, but I think it’s a much more complex process to actually internalize what that means. It’s important to learn how to parallel those details with an emotion or idea that is significant to someone besides oneself.
As far as appearing smart goes, I certainly don’t want to appear not-smart. Poetry is an art that can be done anywhere by anyone, so working with academic allusions, highly experimental forms, and a calculated, mathematical sense of musicality is a way of ensuring there is a justification for why that particular poem is different and exceptional. I’m in no way critiquing these individual things, but I have, in the past, relied far too heavily upon these particular things to try and distinguish myself.
I think, too, if our writing essentially fails to garner positive feedback from our audience or peers, these select symbols of smartness are there to justify the legitimacy of what we wrote. It could be a way of saying, “Well, you just didn’t get it,” or “You just didn’t understand what I was referencing.” I think it’s a necessary struggle that some of us go through in order to eventually reach a place of contentment with a piece of writing, especially if the piece of writing comes from a vulnerable place.
You’re obviously a long way from the beginner phase you described, but I doubt perfect lines just jump onto your notebook or computer or whatever. What are some craft-level struggles you really hope to transcend one day?
JM: A big weakness of mine is syntax variation. There are some poems I’ve written recently that do transcend this, but there are others that I’m still revising. I am confident in my use of images and similes and making a poem imaginative, but often I feel like the rhythm of those things is sometimes hindered by my syntax. Lately, I’ve really been working on syntax variation so that there is a more diverse fluidity when reading the poems on a sentence-by-sentence level.
Did any poems in Ghost County start out pretty rough, in the sense that they were reaching too far without actually grasping the reader?
JM: A lot of the poems in Ghost County started off way too long. I don’t want to throw myself under the bus, but in the copy of the book I read from, I still make edits. One of the poems has at least six or seven lines crossed out. I’ve even reworded the way a few of the sentences read. I’ve heard of multiple writers doing this.
Also, when I say that some of the poems went on too long, I mean that the poem was mixed up in its intent. I think some of the early drafts started out by saying, This is a Midwest poem because look at all these Midwestern-esque details (whatever that means) that have an emotion or idea thrown in there under a long list of cornfields and pickup trucks, rather than letting the poem say, Here is an emotion or idea for you to grapple with in the context of the Midwest. The latter seems much more considerate of a reader’s time.
Are you working on a new project now? And if so, what types of new challenges has it presented?
JM: Yes, I’m working on a new project now. The biggest challenge is the level of specificity and vulnerability of what the book is about. It is very much in the same setting as Ghost County, but it is much more about my family, specifically. I think a lot of writers who write about their families explicitly and address traumatic or vulnerable parts of their past struggle with what they should or should not include. It’s sometimes hard to know how your family will react. If your family gives you a less than favorable reaction, that can cause a lot of insecurity or guilt or shame, and that, too, could be interpreted as a kind of failure.
What do you think about learning to accept failure as a part of writing?
JM: Failure is always going to be a part of the process. No doubt. When dealing with rejection or failure, I say to myself, over and over, that I will die one day. Eventually saying that enough times is like repeating your own name into a mirror. Everything loses its meaning. And in the absence of failure and rejection meaning anything, the only direction to look is forward.
So yes, when that day comes that I am dead and dead and gone, failure and rejection won’t even be taken into consideration. When most people die, the people speaking at their funerals only speak of the deceased’s accomplishments anyways. If you’ve lived even a halfway decent life, the people speaking at your funeral will not even know about your failures or acknowledge them.
So fail often, fail spectacularly, and then make sure to celebrate something that you have accomplished.