I have known plenty of failure in my writing life. Inspired partly by Henry David Thoreau, I set out to be a writer after college. Which effectively meant that I worked part-time as a carpenter and bookseller for the next dozen years without publishing a word. My current day job is as a teacher in a creative writing program at a university, and if I were to give truly honest advice about how to succeed as a writer to my grad students this would be this: work really, really hard for a really, really long time. Do it every day. Reject rejections, refuse to let others convince you that what you are doing is wrong or not good enough. Build up muscles of nonconformity. And also: sometimes getting angry helps. Show the bastards. Anything that gives you energy. When that asshole at the cocktail party laughs in response to your answer, “nothing,” when he asks what you have published, store it as fuel.
It occurs to me that those years of so-called failure are the best thing I bring to my teaching. It is not hard for me to empathize with my students’ struggles. By my estimate I have close to ten books, not drafts but actual books, that have not been published. One novel I have worked on for over thirty-five years. I hope this does not come off as self-pitying, because I don’t pity myself. I have gained a lot from these books too. And sometimes, as is the case with what I am writing right now, I go back and cannibalize the old in a new way. The moldering books act as nurse logs that feed other projects, nourishing my seedlings.
Then, there are the other kinds of books I write, the ones that I have thanks to Henry. I started the first of these when I was fifteen. My early journals were 5.5-by-8.5-inch sketchbooks, and if I take the very first one off the shelf right now I can read profound lines like: “Joanne Fucking Hart likes me!” Or: “I just got stoned for the first time.” Sometime after college I graduated to the 8.5-by-11-inch journals I still use today. None of them have ever been lined, so I’ve gotten pretty good at writing straight across the page. If you look at Emerson’s journals, which I have held in my hands at Houghton Library, the thoughts are so fully formed, and the script so neat, that they intimidate. Not mine.
Early on I started calling my journals my “swill bins,” where anything goes, including snippets of weather, Dear Diary bad moods, caricatures and cartoons, early drafts of essays and books, and sketches of birds. It loosened me up and gave me an alternative to the novels I was trying to write at my desk every morning. Later, when I began to go on writing-related trips to the Gulf of Mexico during the BP oil spill or following the osprey migration to Cuba, the journals transformed into reporter’s notebooks where I kept transcripts of interviews and drawings of the places I visited. In a pinch, when camping out or in remote places, they were also good for sitting on.