On Writing and Failure: Interview with Stephen Marche


In his new book, On Writing and Failure: Or, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer, author Stephen Marche argues that writing is, and always will be, an act defined by failure. The best plan is to just get used to it. 

Join me for this interview as we talk about facing rejection, artistic failure and continuing to write anyway. (And we go on a little tangent about AI there at the end!)

Listen to learn:

  • The norm of comparing yourself to other writers
  • The difference between Career Envy vs. Creative Envy
  • About the writing market and author autonomy within it
  • The benefits of knowing how other authors got where they are

To learn all the secrets of this week’s episode, you’ll have to tune in. 

But here’s a sneak peek…

[04:28] … it's almost a ludicrous fact, but like the more successful the writer to me, the more anxious they are. 

[04:47] … I think even in my own way, I thought like, well, if I ever published a novel in with a major press that's all I would need in this world. Well, no, that's not how it worked at all. 

[11:51] When you are trying to sell literature in the marketplace,  your feelings are going to be hurt, right?

[12:59] Like, you don't do things slap dash, then you do everything with a big heart, like the biggest, with just joy, you know, and you don't worry about anything.

[13:35] So, I mean, at one point in the book, I say like, the hardest thing for writers to understand is that the quality of your writing has very little to do with the results of it. But on the other hand, it's the only thing that matters… 

[17:42] And I, I do really believe that it's something that if you're a writer, you have to pay attention to the way that if you work in a sawmill, you have to be careful with your hands. 

[23:15] Like, the ones who know they're going to lose are the ones that have the kind of grace and power that resonates and lasts.

[26:07]  I mean, I think every writer that I know read something and was like, oh my God, how do I do that?

Links in this episode:

On Writing and Failure

Stephen Marche website

Raymond and Hannah


The Resilient Writers Radio Show: On Writing and Failure, Interview with Stephen Marche -- Full Episode Transcript

Intro: Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. Because—let's face it—the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt-in-chair getting those words on the page. This podcast is for writers who love books, and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft, and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books, and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them, writers who wanna spend more time in that flow state, writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call “the writing life.” We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome, writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show. 

Rhonda: Okay. Hi there. So welcome. The start of this episode I have a small content warning In this interview, we may end up talking briefly about mental illness and suicide. So, you're a grownup, make your own choices accordingly. So, I'm really excited today to have Stephen Marche with us. Stephen Marche is a novelist, essayist, and cultural commentator. He's the author of half a dozen books and has written opinion pieces and essays for The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Atlantic, Esquire, the Walrus, many other magazines, and places. And he lives in Toronto with his wife and children. And we're here today talking about On Writing and Failure, which is the sixth title in this really great field note series that Biblioasis has started a while back now. And I love the subtitle for this statement, On the Peculiar Perseverance Required to Endure the Life of a Writer. Welcome. Hi.

Stephen: Thank you. Glad to be with you.

Rhonda: So, how did this come about? Why did you wanna write this? 

Stephen: Well, you know,  I've been a freelance writer now for almost 20 years,  and working in a variety of genres and businesses really, and a very turbulent 25 years in the history of publishing in the history of writing for sure. And, sort of to sustain myself during that period. I kind of kept a collection of like awful, awful stuff that writers had had to endure because I found those stories, like much more… Like, you know, I think a lot of people go like, work hard and you'll succeed. And, you know, and there's these books about, you know, just be true to yourself. 

Rhonda: Yup.

Stephen: And those are, those

Rhonda: It’s magic-

Stephen: Yeah. 

Rhonda: It’s magic. 

Stephen: It's just, it's magical thinking and it's meaningless and that doesn't really help you when you get right down to what is involved in the practice of surviving. And so the stories that really helped me were the kinds of writers who, who endured and who persevered, in incredibly hard conditions. And learning how, like, it's much better for me to know that James Joyce couldn't get a job like working at a technical college, like as an English instructor in Italy, than it is to know that like JK Rowling overcame poverty and wrote a billion dollars. Like, that one doesn't help me at all. It's much better to know, like, you know, Herman Melville, you know, wrote a better book every time he wrote a book and sold less copies every time he wrote a book <laugh>. And that was just the way his life was. So the book is really a kind of collection of those anecdotes that I use to offer solace to myself.  

Rhonda: Right. Why do you find those comforting and consoling, as opposed to the big, you know, it was rejected 23 times, but then it went on to be a mega bestseller kind of stories?  

Stephen: Well, I mean, one thing I've really noticed is that cuz I've known some very, very successful writers and it never seems to calm down. Like, it never seems to like, like it's, it's almost a ludicrous fact, but like the, the more successful the writer is to me, the more anxious they are. Right. Like, they don't get to a point where it's like, I'm healthy now. Like everything's worked out. And, you know, I mean, I think even in my own way, I thought like, well, if I ever published a novel in with a major press that's all I would need in this world. Well, that, no, that's not how it worked at all. Like, like you just go right back into wanting more things and so on. So like, what I find is it's very important to know this is it, like the good news is the same as the bad news. Like the struggle does not end. And, what you are doing when you are, you know, submitting little stories to small journals or like desperately trying to get first novels published, like your feelings are not dissimilar in any way to what Ian McEwen is going through right now. Right? And that, that, that's just very important to know, I think.  

Rhonda: There's something almost Buddhist about that. Don't you think? Like the kind of releasing of all expectations is that, you know, would you go that far? Like just release everything?

Stephen: Well, I would say the Buddhistic thing would just be not to write. Right? I mean, it's just important to remember that writing is a form of attachment. Right. You were doing, like, it's not a particularly sensible activity when you get right down to it. Right. Like, it's not something that makes a lot of sense on a, on a whole number of levels. Right. So I think, you know, I think it's important to recognize that you're doing this out of a kind of not necessarily healthy attachment. Right? Right. And, that means that, you know, the cause of, you know, it is Buddhistic to say the cause of suffering is desire. Right. But, but you have the desire, so you have to take the suffering.  

Rhonda: Right, <laugh> Okay. You know, the book opens with you sitting on a porch with Nathan Englander, who, for my money, is one of the great short story writers of our generation. 

Stephen: For me too.

Rhonda: I bow down and, and then he's telling a story about him bringing his anxiety to Philip Roth and like, and that's the first page. And I'm like, okay, <laugh> I give up now. 

Stephen: Yeah. 

Rhonda: Right. Like, if these guys don't have it. 

Stephen: Exactly. 

Rhonda: Figure it out. What hope do the rest of us have?

Stephen: Well, I think the point of that story is like, cuz it was like a kid writer came to me and said like, do you, does it ever get easier? Yeah. And I was like, I don't, it's never gotten easier for me. And I asked Nick Engler like, does, and he said, it's never gotten easier for me. And then he asked Philip Roy, like, you, you think, I think one of the things I thought anyway when I was a kid was that as I got bigger, I would like all of this would go away. Right? These feelings of irrelevance and anxiety and so on. And they just, it just doesn't, I mean, it just, it just doesn't. And I think that's really, that's sort of the core point of the book is that you're like, even if you're Philip Roth, you're still sitting there like shivering in expectation of your reviewers and so on. I mean, I just think that it's essential to know that it's not gonna go away to deal with it, frankly. Because otherwise you can feel like, well what, what's wrong with me? 

Rhonda: Right. 

Stephen: Like, why haven't I gotten away from it? It's like, well, no, it's not you away from it. No one gets away from it that this is the, this is the game. This is, well, not even the game. This is just a task you've chosen.

Rhonda: Right. Now, and you say you don't even, you, you've said you don't even feel rejection now.  

Stephen: No, I don't anymore.  

Rhonda: How long did that take? Cause that feels a little holy grail to me. I've got a poetry book that I'm shopping. 

Stephen: It took me,  <laugh>

Stephen: Well see, you know, like I worked in a bunch of genres.

Rhonda: Right.

Stephen: And a bunch of writing magazine pieces and writing newspaper articles as well as novels, as well as short stories as well as, you know, like I was writing in a lot of different forms. So, and you just get knocked out around a lot, right? Like, so I actually, I think I stopped caring about them probably in my mid twenties. I mean, even by then I'd sort of realized like, well, like the, the the, the cost of rejection is like the, you, you are going to be rejected. Like, there's, there's, there's, I mean, one of my, I didn't put it in the book, but a story I think about all the time is, Steven Spielberg pitching a show about a backstage drama about a musical. 

Stephen: And this would've been like in 2010 or somewhere around there, like mid 2000 and no one would buy it. So he had to produce it himself. And I was like, imagine you're Steven Spielberg going into meetings like, hi, my name's Steven Spielberg. I invented the 1980s. Like the aesthetic that of your, of all of your childhoods was determined by me. Would you like my show? Nah, we're not feeling it right now, Steven. Like that it's not, and like no. And getting that answer over and over again. I mean, like, you know, it just doesn't end. Right. And so,

Rhonda: So he did the equivalent of self-publishing, basically.  

Stephen: Yeah. I mean, yeah. And, and I, I think, uh, for me, well, especially when you start submitting to magazines and newspapers where it's really clear that it, it ha you're dealing with the marketplace, right? And the marketplace is about timing and it is about what the individual needs of that particular editor. And so it really is not about you. Yeah. Or your idea, right? Yeah. Like, like it, it, it's just about what, whether you happen to fit in, in the, in the moment in a marketplace, right? So at a certain point, once you, once you, you deal with that enough, it's like, well, you really can't take it personally cuz it isn't about the quality of your ideas or writing or you Right. It's really about what, you know, this very, very,  flipperty-gibbet thing called the literary market that has, you know, not a lot of substance to it. Right? Yeah. So you, you know, and, and, and so, yeah, I would say by my late twenties I stopped feeling rejection. Now I don't feel it at all.

Rhonda: Wow. Okay. Yeah. Something to aspire to there for me anyway. So.

Stephen: Well, if you get up to like, I mean, I was probably rejected for various projects like 30 times this month, right? 

Rhonda: Oh, wow.

Stephen: Like I'm out there. Right, right. Like, if you're in the, if you're in the hustle, like you, like, you cannot look back. Right. I mean, you just can't.  

Rhonda: Right. Right. So, um, do you have any kind of personal tactics or strategies you use to protect yourself against just kind of these things building up to a layer of despair or apathy or the, you know, why even bother kind of thing? 

Stephen: Well, these stories were the strategy, right? Like, these stories, like these stories were like, they helped me feel better. But the short answer is no, <laugh>. I mean, like, you know, it's definitely not that I've stopped these things. But on the other hand, I mean, I think that's the one thing that's hard to understand is that that IS the job. 

Rhonda: Yeah. 

Stephen: Right? These negative feelings and processing them and dealing with them, right? I mean, that is when someone goes in, when somebody works in a sawmill, their body is tired at the end of the day. When you were trying to sell literature in the marketplace, yes. Your feelings are going to be hurt, right? Like, that's, that's the, that's the nature of the job. So it's, you know, I, I think in my best moments, I would say I can see that as a reality at my worst moments, I just feel it. Absolutely.  

Rhonda: Mm-hmm. There's, you know, there's the failure of the marketplace, right? Where you're just, you are, uh, you use the metaphor in the end of the book, the hammering the shoulder against the door, you know? 

Stephen: Yeah.  

Rhonda: So there's, there's that kind of failure, and then there's the, the craft failure, like the, I'm trying to do something and I just, I can't, 

Stephen: Just can't do it. 

Rhonda: Don't have the skill, whatever. Yeah. Do you think those are probably different? 

Stephen: Oh, very much so. Yeah. I mean, I think if you're, if you're failing creatively, that's something you listen to very deeply, right? And you should examine your failures and you should analyze your failures. And you should be, you should figure out why they failed. I mean, I believe that, I mean, to me, being a professional in any task, certainly any creative task is like you plan for real. Like, you don't do things slap dashed, then you do everything with a big heart, like the biggest, with just joy, you know, that you, and you don't worry about anything. But then when you get to the end of it, you do a postmortem and you figure out, even, even in your successes, you figure out what went wrong and what was, and what was better and what was, and what was good and about that kind of failure.  

Stephen: I think you should be absolutely ruthless with yourself, you know? But the other failure, like not getting published or not getting into the right place or not, like that's, you don't have any autonomy over that. You don't have any, you don't have any control over that, right? Yeah. So, I mean, at one point in the book, I say like, the hardest thing for writers to understand is that the quality of your writing has very little to do with the results of it. But on the other hand, it's the only thing that matters, and it is the only thing that matters because it's really the only thing you can control, right? Like in that you have real control over. So, like, I, I absolutely think that perfecting the craft and doing that through a ruthless examination of your own failures is absolutely, the core of this Yeah. Whole, of this whole process, of words towards getting to quality writing, which is what, this is the only reason to do this. Um, and then, but the other stuff you really can't pay attention to. Right? Because it's not… you certainly should not take the wrong lessons from it. Like, just getting rejected does not mean it's bad work – it's that it didn't fit this person at this time with their needs. That's all.

Rhonda: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely. So I wanted to ask about the David Foster Wallace story. Right? So David committed suicide in 2008, and it was devastating news, but there was also an element about it, for me anyway, there was a, a little bit unsurprising, and when I read your book, I was thinking it, it occurred to me what that was. And it's the fact that we have this association of,, in particular of like literary genius, you know, whatever that is with, with a kind of, with a madness in some way, shape or form. Right? So then when something turns out to be mad, using that just, you know, as a shorthand, we're not terribly surprised. 

Stephen: No. 

Rhonda: Yeah. And there is that, that connection, somewhat proven I think, between creativity and it's bipolar, right? That you mentioned.  

Stephen: Well, mood disorders more generally, bipolar is writers specifically, there tends to be a bit higher level of bipolar, but creativity generally, there tends to be mood disorders. I mean,  think one of the horrible things is that, um, killing yourself is a good career move. Right. Which I think is horrible. Right. And I certainly think in the case of David Foster Wallace, like it had nothing to do with his creativity and his depression had absolutely nothing to do. Like the periods when he was most creatively explosive were when his meds were working and he was on his meds, and, and he was functional. The idea that, you know, I mean, I have a lot of friends who suffer from mental illness, and the idea that that is some kind of like, boon from the gods that's gonna release into your creativity is just nonsense.  

Stephen: It's just not, it's just not true. Um, there is this romantic attachment to the idea of the mad genius or whatever, but I think David Foster Wallace is really a case where you see that, you know, what happened is he went off his meds, he couldn't get back on them, and he just got it. His mental health just went, you know, horribly wrong. Right? Yeah. And it was like, and I mean, it, it was like, it was like liver disease or something. Like, you just could not, he just could not get his brain back to function. And the period where he was creative was when he was taking his meds and they were all working. And at the same time, I think of the aesthetic of the mad genius. And, and it was, and in, in his case, it wasn't just, the author genius writer, but it was Club 27 and the Rock and Roll suicides, right? 

Stephen: Kurt Cobain, and all this, and all this stuff, which is another whole total fraud about, uh, the nature of mental illness and creativity, in music that it also fed into. And that, you know, I mean, the horrible thing is that probably made him iconic in a way that, you know, the simple quality of the production of his work did not really, you know, would never have done. Right. And so, yeah. I think, I mean, on the other hand, there is definitely a connection between mental illness and creativity. And I do really believe that it's something that if you're a writer, you have to pay attention to the way that, if you are, if you work in a sawmill, you have to be careful with your hands. Right? Right. If you work in a sawmill, you gotta take steps to be proactive, to be safe to, and, and I think with, if you're writing and your mental health, serious mental health problems are a very real risk. And you have to take precautions. You have to actively take precautions.  

Rhonda: Yeah. Yeah. I think that too. Absolutely. Yeah. I guess we're the equivalent there….We're working with our brain all the time and, and just, 

Stephen: you're working with meaning 

Rhonda: open to the world and with, with meaning. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Stephen: Yead, and so it's very like, when you can fall down meaninglessness so easily you, you gotta be careful. 

Rhonda: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, 

Stephen: you gotta be careful. 

Rhonda: In the book, you say several times, <laugh>, I loved this. So no whining, no complaining, and then you kind of go into, you know, you're not allowed to wh or complain about this or this or this. So,, what are writers gonna have left to talk about over the pub, Stephen, if we can't complain? Is there something about writing and, you know, whining and complaining that you think gets in the way of the work? Or is it something else?  

Stephen: It's funny that, like, well, I mean, at one point in the book, I can say like, all literary essays take the form of complaint and right. And it is kind of ironic for me to say no whining when I've written like an 80 page whinge, basically, about how tough it's to be a writer. But I do think there's something really tacky about complaining about it. You know, like, there's something, like, you know, you're out here making, I'm out here making a living off my thoughts and feelings. Right? Like, that's, that's such a privilege and such an amazing way to live, right? Like that. And, you know, you completely take it for granted, right? Everyone takes it for granted.  

Stephen: And the only thing they think is, why aren't I making more money at it? But like, it's like, well, why should people buy your feelings? Like, it's weird that they buy your feelings at all. <laugh> Like, it's weird that there are like a hundred people who will buy your feelings, nevermind that, you know, you want to be a best seller or whatever. So like, it's, I just think it's important to keep that in mind that this is like, you know, first of all, you choose it. Like no one is forcing you to do this, right? Uh, no one is holding a gun to your head. And second of all, like, and also it is really useless. Like, it doesn't, it doesn't lead anywhere else.

Rhonda: It doesn’t help.

Stephen: No.

Rhonda: I wonder how much of this is all tied up into, you know, the economics and, the, the marketplace needing to make a living. What do you think? Like, if, just as a thought experiment we ever got, not that I think we will, but universal basic income, like, do you think that changes anything?

Stephen: Well, I mean, the marketplace is not really a financial marketplace. It's really a marketplace for prominence, right? And for like, registering with people right. And being meaningful to people, like money comes along, but sometimes they're, they're pretty disconnected. Like James Joyce never made a living ever, like, not even close. Right? He was supported by a series of women his whole life, right. And barely above poverty. So, but, you know, he's James Joyce. Right? So, like, the marketplace we're actually talking about here is the marketplace of meaning and, you know, universal, that  

Rhonda: Yeah.  

Stephen: Wouldn't be universal at all. We'd still, I mean, uh, I do think the fact that creativity has become so class-based particular, I mean, not so much in writing, because the beauty of writing is that you can do it with nothing and you don't need, you know, you don't need a lot, you don't need anything to do it, really. Books are cheap, paper is cheap. But the rise of the class structure and acting and film and music, I mean, I do think that's very upsetting. Um, but for different reasons. I, I mean, and also it's kind of inescapable.

Rhonda: Yeah. Yeah. so there was a sentence in the book that I just wanted to get you to expand on. So you said, if you are not defeated in the end, have you been fighting the right battle? 

Stephen: Right. 

Rhonda: Can you, can you expand on that? 

Stephen: Well

Rhonda: Well, I think feel like I got it <laugh>

Stephen: Well, when you see these writers and their struggle, you realize, I think that part of the reason that their works are so amazing and so exceptional is that they're right over the edge of what can be done, right. And what makes sense to do. Right. And there's a sense that they knew like, the idea of failure is a way of life. Like, I think that was, that was… those are the writers who were really over on the edge were really getting to the new meaning and really getting to the substance of what can be thought here and like, and the possibilities of this, of language. Like, they were inevitably defeated, right? Like they were inevitably gonna lose, right? And so it is like, you know, there are writers who become successful on their own terms, but they're, I don't think they're generally the meaningful ones to me. Like, the ones who know they're going to lose are the ones that have kind of the grace and power that, that, that resonates and lasts. I mean, that's not always true, but I would say in general, like it's, I ask it as a question. 

Rhonda: Right.

Stephen: Right. Like, I think it is a question. 

Rhonda: Yeah. A question and a challenge, you know, knowing what the right battles are. Yeah. 

Stephen: Yeah. 

Rhonda: Um, <laugh>, if I, you also say, if I've matured in my career, it's only that my envy has become more precise. What kind of things make you, make you envious right now? Like where's the edge of your envy? Where would you place that? Like is it an award? 

Stephen: Well, I mean, some writers making, I mean, there are some writers out there making $10 a word for magazine pieces. I'm envious of that. You know, I've stopped envying basically any novelist. Like, it's just too rough out there. I mean, it's just like, don't envy any of those people. It's just too, it's just too rough. And it's also unclear where the novel is going or what it's supposed to do. Um, you know, I would say I envy people, I certainly envy a lot of people for having, um, coherence as an image.

Rhonda: Okay.

Stephen: And having, although that's probably a bad envy to have, but like, there are certain writers that, you know, like, Hey, I know who that person is, because there's a sort of coherent body of work behind them, and they have a co and I'm just so incoherent as a person, like, you know, I mean, as you were saying before, like, you didn't know I wrote Raymond and Hannah, you liked Raymond and Hannah. Yeah. You read my magazine work, but you, you never put together that they were the same person that

Rhonda: was that guy. Yeah.  

Stephen: because they're so weirdly different. Right. And so, I kind of envy that kind of coherence. But on the other hand, that's really me. Like I, I've come to peace with the fact that I'm just incoherent, um, you know, I'd become fascinated with things that are external to myself, and they have different tasks, and that's just one of the realities that I, I have to deal with. But I think it's more stopping envying things, like prizes and things like that. Because when I was a kid, I really did. And then I, and then, and then it just was like, this is stupid. 

Rhonda: Yeah. 

Stephen: And this just doesn't, the people who win it doesn't help them. And the people who chase it doesn't help them. It's like if you lose, you still lose. If you win, you still lose. Like all of that has kind of gone away for me. 

Rhonda: Mm. Wow. Do you think there's anything helpful at all about envy?  

Stephen: Oh, I think I, I mean, envy, I think, you know, it's that kind of, that distinction we talked about earlier about like creative versus career thing, right? I think being creatively envious, like, I think that's the beginning of art. I mean, I think every writer that I know read something and was like, oh my God, how do I do that? I do something like that. And, I just think that to me, that envy of that kind is kind of the beginning of art, whereas envying people's careers and so on, I mean, that really is a suckers game. 

Rhonda: No. Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. 

Stephen: You know, it doesn't, you don't know what they're going through and you don't know where they're going, and they don't know where they're going, and they probably feel lousy about it anyway.  

Rhonda: Yeah. And then they've gotta do the next book. 

Stephen: So Yeah. And there's just, and it's just more the same. So it's not, and, and they're not really in that different position than you are. Right. They're like trying to write things and submitting them and so on. So, I just think that kind of envy is really, really pointless.  

Rhonda: So do you think that, how has this changed? Like, it feels harder to me to make a career outta writing now than it was even 10 years ago. Certainly. 

Stephen: Definitely. 

Rhonda: Anyone who does like freelance magazine work or anything like that, um, how has that changed in the last 10, 15 years? This whole, do you think it's shifted the conversation about failure?  

Stephen: Well, I think the literary institutions in general, from humanities departments to magazines, newspapers, to, uh, to everything else are in contraction, right? And I think it's much harder to be a writer now than it was 10 years ago. And 10 years from now, it'll be harder to be a writer than it is now, than like, and I think I see that with, you know, people who are five years younger than me. It is a lot harder for them, people who are five years older than me. It was easier. There was just more, there was just more stuff. There were more chances. I think that's just the reality of what we're, what we're living through. And I mean, it doesn't really matter because we just, you just have to make the best work that you can and find the best home that you can for it. So that's, that's really it. But it's, but nonetheless, there's no question to me that it's getting harder to do. Also, I think one thing about the transition to digital culture is that you get rejected a lot more. 

Rhonda: Oh, yeah. 

Stephen: Right. I mean, I can still remember. I mean, all the, I'm old enough to remember, like submitting paper copies of short stories and stuff.  

Rhonda: Oh, yeah. SASE envelopes. Yeah. 

Stephen: SASE envelopes. And then it would come back like six months later and you'd be like, oh, so now I have to resubmit like you in that, you know, it's hard to get rejected like 20 times a year that way. Like, you'd have to work at it to get rejected 20 times a year. I mean, as I said, I've probably been rejected 30 times this month.  

Rhonda: Yeah.

Stephen: Right. That adds to, I guess, what you have to endure. But I mean, on the other hand, I think that's kind of a boon for writers that you can submit to anywhere, you know, and you can go, I, I think certainly in magazine land, I mean, I write for everywhere in the world, right? Yeah. But there's no requirement on where I write for at all. Right? Right. Yeah. I write for The Guardian, I write for the New Yorker. It's not, I'm in Toronto, therefore I write for the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. 

Rhonda: Right, right, right. 

Stephen: Like, it's very much more open that way. 

Rhonda: Mm-hmm. I have a friend who does the 100 rejections challenge.  

Stephen: Oh, yeah? 

Rhonda: She gets rejected like more than 200 times a year. She's a poet, short story writer. Rejected more than 200 times a year. And the idea is to count your rejections. I don't have it in me to do it, but.

Stephen: I stopped at 2000, I counted until I reached about 2000, and then I stopped.

Rhonda: Okay. Yeah. 

Stephen: Yeah. 

Rhonda: Should be an award for that.   

Stephen: But when you think about it, the thing is that the better, the higher up the ladder you go, kind of the more you're being rejected. Like, some of those rejections would be like all the Italian publishers who rejected Raymond and Hannah. Right. That's like, that's like 10 people. Right. But I'm getting more rejected because I have a book that's successful in America that Italian publishers are looking at. Right. So that's like a whole different kettle of fish. Do you know what I mean? 

Rhonda: Yeah.

Stephen: Yeah.

Rhonda: It doesn't change the nature of it though, <laugh> Unfortunately.  

Stephen: No. But you know, I think it does, like when you're up, like who cares? 

Rhonda: Yeah. 

Stephen: Right. mean, like, you're just throwing yourself against the door. Yeah. That's all you can do.  

Rhonda: Thinking about Raymond and Hannah, so that came out in 2005. Is there, like, what's the big difference in how you approach your writing now that you just couldn't even have fathom when you were writing Raymond and Hannah.

Stephen: Well, I'm working on a project right now that's AI generated, right? I mean, I'm using chatGPT and pseudo-writing to use AI generation to write novels. So I mean, I, but I couldn't have imagined that five years ago. Mm-hmm. Right. I mean, I think I'm a very peculiar writer in this way, in that every project is very different. Every project requires a very different frame of approach. Like The Next Civil War was a book where I went out and, you know, had to interview hundreds of people and, and cross the United States interviewing Nazis and so on. And now I'm at my computer working with AI generation. It's completely, I mean, it could not be more different processes, right. Um, and  this little book that I wrote, you know, it's just really a little essay, right. In the classic style of like, let's just sit down and collect history together and try to make meaning out of it. So, you know, I think for me, each project really requires a sort of totally different approach. I mean, it's sort of why I don't have a coherent brand, if you will. Right. Like, or, or even a coherent identity. Like, it's just like literary identity. I just, I just do what I want. I get fascinated.  

Rhonda: Fascinated for the other. Yeah.

Stephen: Well, sometimes, I mean, I get so fascinated with things that I can't sleep, right. And, it's like halfway to a sickness, right? So it's sort of like, I mean, it's partly my profession, but it's also really a compulsion. Right. And I kind of understand it as that.

Rhonda: Um, I read an article yesterday and I can't remember who wrote it. It was, it was a long read on the internet about AI, and they were saying, yeah, you know, these are the skills you now need to have. You know, if you're a kid in college, these are the skills you now need to have to be employable in a world that is AI. And they go through and, you know, it turns out it's an English degree, right? 

Stephen: Yeah.

Rhonda: It's everything that makes you more human.  

Stephen: Hundred percent. Absolutely true.  

Rhonda: Kind of astonishing.  

Stephen: I've been working on this stuff since 2017, right? I mean, I wrote my first AI generated story for Wired in 2017, and then I wrote one for the MIT Tech review, and then I wrote a 17% generated short story for LA Review of Books. And then a hundred percent AI generated story in 2019. What I see with this stuff is that humanistic values, humanistic, capacities. Like, for example, the ability to tell good information from bad information, the ability to fact check, the ability to express intention. these, and also basic things like familiarity with style and familiarity with modes of sentences and sentence graphs and things like this. Semantics. Huge. These are all gonna be absolutely essential to natural language processing. They are. I've used them. And you know, I don't just use ChatGPT, I use PseudoWrite, I use Cohere, which is outta here. I use character AI. Um, so I've seen this from a bunch of different perspectives and I don't think at all that what you, the one, the last thing on earth you wanna do right now is get a degree in coding. I mean, it is the last, I mean, cuz they're gonna, I mean, they are really gonna end that in about a year – basic coding.  

Rhonda: Wow. Yeah. Yeah. Amazing. All right. Thank you so much for this. I guess my last question was whether or not you have any final words of advice for the emerging, the so-called emerging writer. You know, the one that just hasn't done it yet, but wants to?

Stephen: Well, as I say in the book, like good writers offer advice, bad great writers offer condolences. So I won't offer any advice. I'll just offer my condolences.  

Rhonda: Right. <laugh>, best of luck, <laugh>. All right. Thanks so much, Stephen. Great to talk. 

Stephen: Pleasure. 

Rhonda: Bye.  

Stephen: Okay, bye. 

Outro: Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes. Your ratings and reviews tell the podcast algorithm gods that “yes, this is a great show. Definitely recommend it to other writers.” And that will help us reach new listeners who might need a boost in their writing lives today as well. So please take a moment and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it, and I promise to read every single one. Thank you so much.


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