Photo by Seth Missiaen
The Fail Safe
A Podcast for Writers
Failure might seem like a binary state — you are or are not a failure. But wait: The Fail Safe, a podcast that is the result of a collaboration between the Iowa Writers’ House and draft: the journal of process, wants to challenge that notion by exploring the failures of today’s most successful writers.
On Apr. 28, in downtown Iowa City, on the second floor of the Clinton Street Social Club, host Rachel Yoder was preparing to wrap up the live taping of the first episode of The Fail Safe when her guest, the recently world-renowned Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You, remarked: “The most powerful force in popular success is chance.” He said that artists must “… give ourselves as many chances to be lucky as possible. That’s sort of what it means to live the life of an artist.”
Where another interviewer might have felt like they needed to reign their subject in, Yoder helped Greenwell explore the niches of his opinions and make eccentric yet poignant connections between failure and success, or the often blurry line separating the two.
For this listener, the most surprising moment came when Yoder asked Greenwell about his writing life now, in the wake of success (the book tours, the signings, the readings). He first admitted that he’s terrified by the prospect of never feeling like he’s writing in a space of unimportance again. And of success he said, “It’s amazing and profoundly disturbing.” But then — and one could be forgiven for not anticipating this catch-22 of popular success — he said, “I feel further away from writing now than ever in my life.”
Earlier in the conversation, Greenwell said, “I have to feel like I’m writing in a space of unimportance.” For context, he spoke to how he wrote the middle section of his debut novel. Greenwell said the single unbroken paragraph was written on scraps of paper and on napkins, and that “treating the paper like trash” allowed him to feel like, “this is a complete disaster from the start.” Feeling as though, from the beginning, he was failing, allowed him the space to take risks that ultimately gave him a chance to be lucky.
For The Fail Safe, with this first episode, they can rest assured that their podcast is not a complete disaster from the start — far from it. To hear more about sudden success, failure that leads to success and the failures of success — to realize how nuanced the idea of failure really is — check out The Fail Safe. The first episode of the podcast will be released in late May at iowawritershouse.org/fail-safe.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 199.