BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 FEB 12
Featured in
Issue 145

Try Again

The ups and downs of failure as a creative tool

BY Lynne Tillman in Opinion | 01 FEB 12

Saul Steinberg, Untitled, 1954. Courtesy © The Saul Steinberg Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London 2012; first published in The New Yorker, February 27, 1954

Recently I gave a fiction reading with the poet Matthea Harvey at New York University’s Lillian Vernon House, which lodges its creative writing programme. At the end, we took questions. The last to me was: ‘What would you tell younger writers is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your writing life?’ The next night I dined with a friend who’s an artist. He and I discussed how – and whether – to answer questions about our work: ‘I’ve said I believe in something, an idea or cause,’ he said, ‘then someone in the audience says, “But I don’t see that in your work.”’

No one strong-arms you into becoming an artist or writer – most often you’re dissuaded – and volunteers who bemoan their chosen gig seem disingenuous. Visual artists are often called to account for their choices and asked to defend their positions. Few occupations other than finance, politics and crime entail this reckoning. Writers and artists may ask themselves why they make art or write, and many feel the pointlessness of their self-chosen jobs, but all rebuttals and answers to their existential questions rest on faith in Art or Literature. Faith itself will be tested.

Art and literary projects regularly fail, but the announcement of mistakes or failures is rare. There’s no written history of these failures, unless artists record them. In art, mistakes can be happy, revelatory surprises. Failures are also intriguingly resisted, by people who keep on trying. My dermatologist has researched a cure for cancer for 40 years. At 82, he appears undaunted, but then he is one of many scientists engaged in cancer research. This commonality of purpose and group effort doesn’t pertain in the arts. The field primarily supports individual achievement at the cost of a general goal, like a cure for cancer. But pursuing a common goal for art would be misguided.

A comic gets rid of bad jokes, or is a bad comic, though failures might make it into the act, since they’re at the heart of funny. Comedy wouldn’t exist without failure, especially that of other people. Writers may publish idiocies and artists make dull objects, and some of this work may be celebrated as good writing or art. Some write more and more books, hoping to get it right, often digging a deeper hole to fall into. Success itself can be a rut, since, it’s said, it breeds success, so might condemn an artist to doing the same thing forever.

To the question about my best lesson for younger writers, I answered: ‘Don’t expect that being published will make you happy.’ I didn’t mention the inevitability of rejection, luck, money, nepotism etc. Before my first novel appeared, I’d naively believed that being published would compensate for every bad thing. In those pre-publication days, my writing was for me, I was its only reader, and I could believe it was without sin.

At dinner with my artist friend, I told him I didn’t know if artists owed anyone an answer or what a writer’s responsibility to readers was, if there was one. The ethics of these peculiar relationships remain conundrums. Notions of service to the field may not matter, if the proof isn’t in the pudding. Anyway, writers and artists are not voted in or out by an electorate, though institutions – including collectors, gallerists, publishers, art magazines, critics – do vote but not in a transparent manner, not democratically. It’s insisted there is a public for art, but those who remark on it generally presume themselves separate from it.

Working with words and pictures engages artists and writers in a world they didn’t make, to which they may or may not contribute. I often think about Samuel Beckett and his agonistic relationship to writing and living. Beckett wrote novels, he wrote in two languages, he wrote plays. Beckett talked with actors, had intentions about how his plays should be performed, specified the props he wanted on stage, in service of communicating the incommunicable. A play is such an earnest art form, as it is written for, acted by and presented in front of living people. Its earnestness also resides in its ephemerality, the precariousness of every performance, tethering the genre to life’s temporariness. That Beckett wrote is a thrilling paradox. ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Societies find cunning solutions for communicating even the incom­municable. Which brings me to the time I lived in London. I didn’t understand the British use of ‘I don’t mind’ to mean ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘maybe’. The phrase seemed to allow for ineffable negotiations between people, though. ‘I don’t mind’, I saw, opened a conversational door through which either party could leave, without embarrassment. But it was hard for a foreigner to use, because it’s part of a British dance whose subtle moves are learned from childhood. The British also sometimes avoided answering direct questions. I loved that, it was so un-American, and now I sometimes do it in New York, where people expect answers. I change the subject or pretend I haven’t heard the question, and watch surprise or chagrin appear on faces. It’s a liberation from others’ nosiness, a freedom I never expected. I recommend it, with reservations that will be different for each person, discerned only through trial and error.

Lynne Tillman is a writer. Her most recent title is Mothercare (Soft Skull Press, 2022). In 2025, Soft Skull Press is publishing a book of her selected stories titled Thrilled to Death.