'Fail better,' Samuel Beckett commanded, a phrase that has been taken on by business executives as some kind of ersatz wisdom. They have missed the point completely. Beckett didn’t mean failure-on-the-way-to-delayed-success, which is what the FailCon crowd thinks he meant. To fail better, to fail gracefully and with composure, is so essential because there’s no such thing as success. It’s failure all the way down.
At the center of this web of catastrophes and losses and despairs and mistakes sits a single, obvious culprit: the act of writing itself. In the best work, the intentions of the author fall away, leaving an open field for readers to play in, and they create meanings that may have nothing to do with the author’s. Jonathan Swift famously intended ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ as an indictment of all humanity but ended up leaving a story for children. The joy of language is also a torment. ‘Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to,’ Flaubert wrote, ‘while we long to make music that will melt the stars.’
When I hear the phrase ‘writing community,’ usually uttered by those without enough talent to hate other writers for theirs, my first instinct is to reach for the napalm. But failure really does bind us. Flaubert longing to melt the stars and the kid receiving her first rejection letter are the same. All of our little streams pour out into the ocean of total uncaring. If there are to be any claims to greatness, they are to be found only in the scope of the failure and persistence in the face of it. That persistence may be the one truly writerly virtue, a salvation indistinguishable from stupidity. To keep going, despite everything. To keep bellying up to the cosmic irrelevance. To keep failing.