On Mitski, Anne Carson and failure

Jeff Alessandrelli
December 1, 2017
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Sitting at my desk trying to focus, trying to write, I keep going back to two interviews. The first, by the amazing musician Mitski (check out Bury Me at Makeout Creek or, especially, Puberty 2) on the website Stereogum, details Mitski’s perpetual desire to stymie her success. Responding to a question about her next album, the musician states:

I always have strong urges to sabotage myself. Whenever someone says they like something about my music, I tend to not want to do that anymore. It’s not even that I don’t like it anymore, it’s that I keep trying to find ways for people to dislike me. I think that’s kind of what it’s going to be about.

STEREOGUM: I feel like this could go in a very dark direction and I could start probing about why you want people to dislike you, but I’m not sure if that’s a good idea or not.

MITSKI: You can probe it all you want, but I don’t understand it either. You can take it in a bad way, but also it forces me to try to change and grow. I think I just can’t sit still. I keep around this David Bowie quote actually just to remind myself. I have a screenshot of it, so let me read it out to you ’cause you’re recording. David Bowie said, “If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you are just about in the right place to do something exciting.” So whenever I’m like, “Oh my god! I’m fucking everything up!” I’m like, “This is good that I’m a little uncomfortable.”

I’ve written about David Bowie before on the KR blog and Mitski’s quoting of him here reminds me why I love him to the endless extent that I do. It’s the music, sure, but it’s also the fact that he risked failure constantly—and sometimes achieved it. Every listener differs, of course, but I personally think some Bowie albums are half-good at best; in his striving to always change and progress with the times Bowie occasionally overstepped. But as Mitski alludes to above, that inconsistency makes him the legendary musician he is. A willingness to fail is oftentimes just as important as the ardency to succeed. Out of some desire to make great, lasting work, to sabotage oneself seems counterintuitive; if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, especially if it’s already gained some success and renown.

At the same time, however, one has to do this in order to keep moving forward in one’s work. To write the same efficient, balanced poem or short story or essay over and over again might gain a writer continual publication, sure. But in certain ways self-doubt and repudiation should be just as important as acceptance, especially if an artist knows that they’re working in unfamiliar territory—which, from work to work, hopefully they are. As Mitski’s Stereogum interview makes clear, fear is as great a catalyst as success, and the best artists work hard on finding different doubts and fears from project to project. Some of those projects might succeed; others might fail. But the simultaneous (and contradictory) act of self-assurance twined with self-doubt is what, in the end, matters most.

The other interview I keep going back to is by Anne Carson; her The Paris Review 2004 “The Art of Poetry. Both subtle and unsubtle, there is too much revelation in the interview to get into here, but there is one short interchange near the middle of the talk that just kills me, has stuck in my head ever since I read it. Discussing the joy Carson gets as a visual artist—“I…get very happy when I’m drawing”— and her lack of joy as a writer—“It doesn’t gather up my being the way making an object does”—the interviewer asks a very simple question:

INTERVIEWER: So why write at all?

CARSON: I write to find out what I think about something.

It’s the uncomplicated patness that I love here, patness so matter of fact as to be astonishing. Of course every writer should write in order to find out what they think about something, but in the moment, from revision to revision and draft to draft, such simplicity is sometimes hard to come by. It takes a writer as varied and multi-valenced as Carson to, in a single short sentence, elucidate the goal every writer should have, no matter the piece of writing being worked on. To write in order to find out what one thinks—what could be easier than that? What could be harder? Because, hand in hand with Mitski’s wish for artistic imbalance, is the fact that sometimes we work on a piece of writing to, by the end of it, realize that we still don’t know what we think or that we don’t actually think that much, have nothing new to say. In writing to solely find out what one thinks, the chance for failure comes clear and clean. And that’s the point. The more explorations taken, the more opportunities for confusion and disarray—as well as revelation. Honest failure, anyway, is its own type of achievement, and that fact is worth considering. Mitski and Anne Carson know it well, as did David Bowie. From poem to poem, essay to essay, book to book, I’m constantly learning it, and I hope such acts of self-sabotage never cease for me.

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