“The Promise of Failure”

Writer John McNally’s work has appeared in more than 100 periodicals and anthologies. He is the author of two story collections, three novels (one of which became a YA book), a memoir, and three books for creative writers, including most recently The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding (2018, University of Iowa Press).

McNally has won awards and fellowships for screenwriting and fiction and has taught creative writing at eight universities, including University of Wisconsin–Madison and George Washington University. He currently serves as faculty at University of Louisiana at Lafayette and in the low–res MFA at Pacific University.


The Common Reader: In your new book you write, “My hope is to complicate the meanings of the terms failure and success,” and elsewhere, “In one light, the story of my life has been the story of failure, but if that light shifts ever so slightly, the story of my life becomes a story of success.” What are your measures for success as a writer now?


John McNally: I don’t look at success in any kind of professional sense—book contracts, film options, sales, etc. Those things are out of my control, and I don’t think it’s a healthy way to spend your time since you would be tying your fate to the whims of people you’ve never met. In my book, I talk a lot about tapping into your unconscious mind when you write, and how when you do that you’re drawing from a pool of material that will likely surprise you, mystify you, confuse you, and confound you. For me, success is when—after successfully accessing those darker, more mysterious parts of my mind—I finally make sense of it all so that those surprising details/moments/characters provide the story with an aesthetically pleasing shape or movement or cumulative effect. It’s the closest writing gets, for me, to the spiritual, but it may take years of revision to get there, and sometimes it never happens. I may never reach that point where all the story’s pieces work together in a kind of harmony that’s more mysterious than obvious. To be honest, I’m hesitant to call those experiences of getting a story to work on that level a success because it implies that when you don’t get it right it’s a failure, which I don’t believe. But at least—unlike those benchmarks of contracts and book sales—it’s coming from within.


TCR: You talk about what is at stake for apprentice writers. At first I thought of Robert Olen Butler’s notion of “yearning at the white-hot center.” But you mean something else or more?


JM: This is tricky because the writer may not even be aware of the personal stakes that she’s invested in a particular story or novel, but I think the reader senses it when it’s there, and I think it amplifies the work in ways that’ll make it resonate more than when it’s absent. So, what do I mean by putting something of yourself at stake? I don’t necessarily mean that you write autobiographically, but I do believe that there’s something of yourself on the page, often in the form of vulnerability. And I think the writer achieves it by burrowing deep into the consciousness of the character, so deep that it would be nearly impossible for one’s own vulnerabilities not to seep in. In The Promise of Failure, I talk about the TV show Deadwood, which is one of my favorite examples of storytelling in any medium. But what makes it so brilliant—in my opinion—is that David Milch, the show’s creator, is pretty much, in varying degrees, every character. If you read about David Milch’s life, read interviews with him, read essays about his process, you begin to see the many ways in which he seeps into the characters in the show, the ways that his life has been translated into this epic, and how when he talks in interviews about Wild Bill Hickock, a short-lived character whose influence hovers over all of the episodes, he seems to be talking about his own father. When personal stakes work best in the creative process, they come from a deeper, mysterious place. If it were a calculated attempt to tell a story in which you purposefully make every character an aspect of yourself, I suspect it would come across as gimmicky and superficial, potentially heavy-handed.


TCR: You have a philosophy of experience reminiscent of Jim Carrey’s Yes Man: “[W]hen you embrace everything that is out there to be embraced, you’d be surprised by what awaits you.” Why does this work for you as opposed to a Dickinson-esque retreat?


JM: Oh, I retreat, too. I feel the urge to retreat soon, in fact. But I’ve certainly been more open lately to say yes to things if they’re new and interesting. At the beginning of each year, I write at the top of a sheet of paper “Stasis is Death,” and then I make a list of not so much goals but rather large and small shifts that I hope for in my life. Here’s an example. For the past four years, I’ve been co-writing screenplays and TV pilots with a colleague. When he first brought it up, I hadn’t seen any of his writing, but I liked him and had been thinking about bringing it up to him, even though our paths had crossed only a few times prior to that. It’s turned out to be a great collaboration. We’re both pretty egoless about the process, passing the script back and forth, and I think our strengths complement each other well. Over the years, I’ve turned down many offers to collaborate on one project or another, but I had reached a point about five years ago where I wanted to do something new, and though it was a risky thing to do—to say yes to someone I barely knew and whose work I hadn’t yet read—I had a gut feeling about it, and we’re certainly having more luck as collaborators on TV and film projects than we’ve had individually. But I’m also trying to embrace things in my life that I might not have embraced earlier in my life. I can be a pessimist on Facebook, but I still believe that something mysterious and wonderful is waiting around the corner, if only I get off the couch and go there.


TCR: “I write to understand … to make sense of disparate things, “ you say. But elsewhere, “Real life often lacks an aesthetically pleasing shape.” How do we create forms that fulfill life’s potential?


JM: I tell my students that the story is smarter than us. It’s smarter than us for the reasons I wrote above, that in an ideal state you’re drawing from your unconscious mind when you write. It’s smarter than us because it takes us weeks, months, years for those disparate things to make a kind of cohesive sense. I might twist your question around to say that I’m equally if not more interested these days in how the stories I write help make my life more fulfilling. The stories I write and the life I live are inextricably linked by my unconscious mind, and one always informs the other. The stories I write, if I’m honoring the mystery of the process, are hopefully helping me fulfill my potential as much as I’m helping the story fulfill life’s potential. For me, in order to create a form that fulfills life’s potential, I have to approach the thing I’ve written with humility and hope it teaches me how to bring it up to that level. I taught undergraduates for twenty-five years, and I probably spent as much time talking about humility as I did nuts-and-bolts craft stuff. I wouldn’t mind if the introductory creative writing course was called Introduction to Humility.


TCR: Finally, you speak of maybe that most important thing in writing: “vision … attitude … personality.” How is that developed, especially in writing programs?


JM: The best I can do—and it’s not perfect—is find those inspired moments in a student’s story or novel, especially if that writer hasn’t had many of those moments in other work they’d turned in, and explain why there’s a vision/attitude/personality happening in that particular passage as opposed to other passages. Some writers come out of the gate with those talents. I’ve been teaching for thirty years, and I’ve seen maybe five times where an undergraduate in a beginning fiction writing class is in full possession of his or her own vision. All of those writers have gone on to publish books, not surprisingly. But I wasn’t one of those writers, and most of my students aren’t those writers, so for the rest of us it’s a matter of honing that skill. I had some great teachers, but I didn’t have anyone isolate a sentence or a paragraph and explain to me why I was tapping into something different here as opposed to there, so I try to do that. I might not have flailed around in the dark quite as long if someone had pointed it out. Or maybe I would have. Hard to say. I can also talk to my students about my theory of a writer’s vision, how (to put it concisely for the sake of this answer) it’s a Frankenstein-like fusion of the narrator’s consciousness with the writer’s subconscious. But, as with humor, it’s easier to dissect than to execute. Which, I suppose, is true of most things.


Thanks, John. Have a look at John McNally’s The Promise of Failure here.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.