The acceptance of failure

Ever since I voiced the magnificently written Little Century, the story of a young woman making her way in turn-of-the-century Oregon, I’ve wanted to highlight the debut novelist Anna Keesey. I deeply admire Anna’s writing — her clearly drawn characters, the undercurrent of tension and yearning throughout the narrative, the richly realized sense of place that is so familiar to me, a child of the American West.

My Little Century recording days moved far more slowly than usual, as I laid down a scene with dialogue between characters, and then re-recorded the lines, then took yet another turn at getting them just right. I very rarely work with such careful deliberation and fretting — I’ve found that my first impulse is, more often than not, the best one to follow in this work — but Anna’s writing was demanding. Not only did the dialogue on the page vibrate with subtext, necessitating that at least two layers of thought and feeling be simultaneously realized, but it was clear that, more than ever before, my job was to get out of the way of the text. It took very careful rendering of the work to not insinuate myself into the recording, but to do my best to disappear and allow Anna’s words to be all.

Once the book was complete, I had the honor of having an extended conversation with Anna, during an exclusive interview for Blackstone Audio. Talking as an emerging writer with a skilled and knowledgeable writer was a great pleasure, and it was meaningful to discuss our shared love of the area in Oregon in which the book is set, the writing communities we have in common, and the particularly gorgeous passages that continued to resonate for me, weeks after the completion of the recording.*

So, why has it taken me so long to feature this book, one of my absolute favorite projects? In many ways, for a very long time, I felt like I had failed utterly. I uploaded my tracks for Blackstone, and made the corrections, and sent off my invoice. At that point I am usually long into other projects that capture my attention and energy. But this book nagged at me. I wanted to start again, redo it, do better by it, and by Anna. I worried that it was not right, that instead of making the work sing, I had stifled something beautiful in it, that rather than bringing the words to life, I had diminished them, dampened their power somehow.

And then I read the review from Publishers Weekly, and it wasn’t devastating, by any means — there were many kind things said about the strengths of the performance —  but it troubled my heart. This book that I believed in and cared so deeply for, for that reviewer, at least, fell flat. For a few days I felt heartsick, and sorry.

And then Anna sent me the kindest message, thanking me for my work, and telling me how much she loved the recording, how she heard in my voice the lines she’d written, the voices of the characters, and they sounded new, and still real and true and right to her. And then I went back to the recording, and I listened to it, and I, too, believed in it. It’s not perfect — no performance is ever perfect — but even to my critical, anxious ear, the work sounded real and true and right to me, too. Anna’s story was beautiful, and powerful, and rich, and I got out of the way of it, so that the gorgeous prose stood alone, without interference.

So was the reviewer wrong? No. My performance just didn’t fully work for that listener. Was I wrong to worry so much, through the entire process, about failure, second-guessing myself and finessing the recording line by line? Absolutely not. It’s when a book is as good as Anna’s Little Century that the work of narrating becomes so challenging, requiring subtlety and nuance which may not work for everyone. Had I not cared so much about it, I would have sat down, pounded it out, sent it off, and not learned anything new about the craft of writing or the craft of narrating. So this book was a great gift, so much so that more than six months later, I’m still thinking about it. My fear of failure — failing the life of the book, failing a writer I deeply respect, failing my own expectations and standards — kept me committed through the process, and even to evaluating the recording more deeply after the project’s completion. The discovery that I didn’t profoundly fail or ruin anything was only made possible by my humble desire to do my very best possible work.

Anna continues to inspire me, to make me think about writing, and love, and devotion, and hope. She has just published a wonderful essay on the literary site Bloom, called “Keyhole,” about the acceptance of failure, which prompted me to think about her novel, and considerations of grief and failure, and acceptance. I am grateful for Anna, for Little Century, for “Keyhole,” and for the opportunity to try and fail and try and fail, and to accept imperfection as a part of the story. So that’s why, today, I share this extraordinary book with you, even with an imperfect review of my performance of it. Like Anna says in her essay, it’s time that I no longer choose “avoidance and delay over the fear of…possible humiliations.” I wish that the review had been positive without reservation, but it’s no excuse to delay calling attention to this most beautiful of stories.


Little Century


Listen to samples:


* Passages like this one:
The buckaroos often sing, and she knows why. The unpeopled distance and the careless cold weigh upon a person, compressing the spirit into a chunk without movement. Any two notes sung together press back and make a space for the tiny soul to warm up and swirl about.

7 thoughts on “The acceptance of failure

  1. This is an exceptional post. Thank you for sharing your experience with something that plagues all of us, Tavia. Deeply appreciated.

  2. Xe Sands on January 26th, 2013 at 2:14 pm
  3. Thanks, Xe.

  4. Tavia on January 26th, 2013 at 2:19 pm
  5. I agree with Xe, Tavia. I so admire how vulnerable you make yourself. Lots of things in here so familiar to me–to all of us– those long labor-of-love recording projects, feeling like you haven’t quite achieved your auditory “vision,” agreeing (yikes) with somebody’s criticism, finding peace ultimately with at least the purity of your effort. Thank you for this generosity.

  6. Heather Henderson on January 26th, 2013 at 2:33 pm
  7. Thank you for taking the time to read the post, Heather.

  8. Tavia on January 26th, 2013 at 2:34 pm
  9. Wow!!! This was a VERY “b-r-a-v-e” blog piece, and I am somewhat taken aback at the soulfulness of it all. I obviously have/had no real idea of what narraters go through. I love audio books SO much, and they have brought so much “life” to my life – but in the future, I will appreciate them, and the efforts they require, much more fully. Do all narraters go through the angst and questioning and soul-searching that THIS narrator has admitted to? It is necessary? Does it create a better “product”? Do the authors or the publishers appreciate it? Do I, as a listener, deserve such dedication? I think maybe I have taken the many, many audio books I’ve cherished far, far too much for granted. I shall not do that in the future. Thank you for enlightening me, Tavia. I am rather humbled at what you give, have given in the past, and hopefully will continue to give to the world of your own self.

  10. Carolyn Houts Gilbert on January 26th, 2013 at 3:11 pm
  11. Thanks, mumsie, for reading the post. You are such a careful and critical listener that I would appreciate your thoughts, even if you weren’t my very own beloved mother!

    I think many narrators do work this hard, and think this deeply about their performance. It’s not every book that triggers such an experience. Each writer has their own style, and few writers I’ve come across employ as much subtext, or have as much lyrical beauty as Anna Keesey does, so while those stories are not necessarily less artful or literary, the choices for the actor might be simpler. Many books, especially contemporary fiction or genre fiction, rely on trend or stereotype, so the actor’s biggest job is to have an awareness of pop culture, so that the phrasing and music are right. But the listener deserves absolute dedication, of course, no matter what the project asks of them.

    One of the most exciting things about my study as a writer has been understanding writing far more deeply, which translates into far greater attention to the writing in my work as a narrator. I hope that, even if the writer, publisher, or listener wouldn’t be able to identify an overt difference in the performance, the added depth of the performance will be present and effective, nonetheless.

  12. Tavia on January 26th, 2013 at 3:25 pm
  13. Ilsa, thank you for taking the time to read the post and comment. You sound like a wonderful advocate for Anna’s work, and a loving step-daughter. How lovely that your family has come together. Your kind words and attentiveness have made my night. I aspire to the kind of quality Anna exemplifies, in craft and in spirit. Thank you again.

  14. Tavia on January 28th, 2013 at 9:31 pm

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