Queers Fail Better – Q / A with Shawn Syms

Queers Fail Better – Q / A with Shawn Syms

In her book The Queer Art of FailureJudith Halberstam offers alternative ways of knowing and becoming. Instead of valuing the conventional paths of belonging, achievement and completion, she thinks about and champions the ways of “failure”: losing your way, giving in, being excluded, forgetting, awkwardness, coming apart. Not just rejecting the “normal,” Halberstam shows alternatives to success as paths that have always been there, moving away from mastery and coherence. In this series of Q&As with contributors to our upcoming Queer issue, we play with these ideas. When we aren’t trying to finish first (or finish anything) where do we end up?

Think back to when you started writing. What’s an earlier influence you outgrew, abandoned, or turned against?

I got my start in writing as an advocacy journalist when I was still in my teens, and in my earnestness I was very unsubtle and didactic, more interested in “being right” than exploring persuasion, uncertainty and complexity. I’m still interested in all of the same concerns now as I was then — but moving toward fiction and poetry was partially an effort to try and explore similar terrain in what is, I hope, a more nuanced way. I held back on literary writing until I was in my thirties. A fear of failure perhaps.

When a piece of writing doesn’t work out, what do you do with it? Discard? Fold it into another project? Salvage parts?

I keep everything, and sometimes reuse. My writing platform is Google Docs, which allows you to amass all of your work as a collection, and access it and work on it from virtually anywhere. In terms of content and thematic preoccupations, there is significant overlap between all of my writing: journalism, essays, reviews, poetry and fiction. It’s all somehow queer, and often not necessarily in the expected sense of sexual identity. I like having all these works sit together in one place.

Sometimes a piece of unfinished writing can lie there for a year or two, and then I’ll come back to it with a fresh approach. Often this is driven by some practical or mercenary consideration (ie, this story collection needs something else, what can I work with?; or, there is a contest or publication seeking a particular theme or word count, what work can I apply against that?), but it can still lead to something creatively satisfying in the end. 

What do you do with your rejection letters?

The majority of them are electronic these days, so they go in a folder in my email mailbox. Most rejection letters are either generic, so they have little emotional impact, or positive, so they are nice to take out and have another glance at from time to time.

I got a brief but rather catty rejection letter from The Fiddlehead once, handwritten on a scrap of paper. I held onto it and like to take it out and have a look at it from time to time, like a curious talisman of sorts. The same piece they rejected was subsequently accepted quite enthusiastically by a talented and experienced editor elsewhere who actually didn’t change a single word. This was a worthwhile reminder (and it’s the same lesson I’ve learned from workshopping the same piece with multiple accomplished mentors): informed tastes are still subjective ones.

Do you plan out the piece beforehand or find your way as you go along? A combination of both?

To date, I’ve never started with a plot outline, just an idea or theme or structure that I want to explore. I discover what happens through the process of writing itself. Sometimes partway through I know how I want a piece to end and I’ll jump forward and write the concluding section. That has tended to work for me so far because, for better or worse, a lot of my work is fairly chronological, rational and linear. I’m about to start some new writing in earnest though, and I’m interested in shaking that up a bit. My piece in the upcoming Poetry Is Dead was based on both a concept and a structural constraint (it was actually first constructed as a spreadsheet, a first for me!) but still, how it would end up was determined through the process of writing itself.

When a project is finished, how do you start the next one? Or do your projects overlap?

So far, I’ve done one project at a time. This time, I’m thinking of working concurrently on poems, short stories and my novel-in-progress. We’ll see how that goes! 

Have you ever not sent a piece of writing somewhere because it seemed “too gay/queer” for that publication?

If I did, I’d never be able to send anything anywhere! Virtually everything I write is “too queer” for someone in some way. Most of my writing topically and thematically considers issues like sex, violence, consent, drugs, sexually transmitted infections and the like. I had the publisher of a queer online journal with a reputation for “edgy” content reject one of my pieces and suggest the work itself was somehow homophobic, presumably because some of the characters were.

Conversely, there is a very mainstream Canadian magazine that I find myself repeatedly sending my most over-the-top pieces. I guess I’m trying to make a point that they should publish more eclectically, even though I anticipate that the work will be rejected. On one hand, I do think it’s important to respect and consider fit, and a publication’s curatorial sensibilities. On the other, a lot of my work may be publication-quality, but it doesn’t really “belong” in any of the existing venues, usually because of subject matter. So you try your best to work your way in anyway, and help in some small way to reshape a publication to be more inclusive.

A journal that specializes in “unpublishable” content once rejected once of my pieces by saying it was strong enough that it could easily find a home somewhere else — even though the content was so queer in so many different ways that I virtually can’t imagine it ever being accepted anywhere.

I do think that in the current historical moment, there is an intrinsic link between queerness and failure, in the sense of failure to fully conform to mainstream expectations or simplistic binaries. Or, looked at differently, we are exposed repeatedly to the failure of society to be elastic enough to nourish difference, and we continually push up against that with our work.

What do you do to procrastinate?

Sometimes the responsibilities of life are such that when I get home from my day job, I don’t feel creative at all, and I sit around and do very little of substance, for hours on end. When it comes to times when I’m actively writing though, learning how best to strike the balance between creative writing and online research is an ongoing challenge. I think it’s a problem for a lot of writers. This is in part because these two activities can beneficially feed into one another. But research sometimes leads to tangents that can be paralyzing. So I find setting one-to-two-hour blocks of time where I am disciplined and just stay on the page can really help.

Has anyone ever said something completely discouraging to you as an artist? Did it take the wind out of your sails or did it drive you forward? Or both?

Yes, however unintentionally. A very distinctive writer I quite admire read a manuscript of mine, and their primary feedback was that they found they “didn’t understand it.” This feedback was worthy of consideration, was completely genuine and wasn’t intended with any malice whatsoever — but I found it quite crushing. If I gave it some more thought at the time, I probably would have had a more nuanced reaction.

The fact that this writer’s own unusual oeuvre even exists in the world gives me hope that there is a place out there for my own strange, queer literary worldview — and that they would find my own writing puzzling made me wonder if anyone else at all would be able to see a way into what I’m trying to do. Pretty melodramatic of me, I recognize. It depressed me for weeks, more than perhaps I should even admit. But if you believe in what you are doing, you can’t really stop and you can’t really do anything different. You soldier on.

Can a piece of writing fail, or is that a bullshit notion?

Absolutely, yes it can. The question is, in whose view? I review books all the time and I frequently disagree with other critics. Books I have disliked win prestigious awards. Cultural criticism is a conversation in which I enjoy participating, and which I believe strengthens my own work. But an author can decide whether to consider or ignore whatever I have to say.

And the same applies to my own work. There are many people whose opinions I trust and respect, but I still don’t agree with everything they say about my writing. There are particular images that almost every critical reader has wanted me to remove from a specific piece of creative writing, but that I would just never be able to excise. Ultimately, each creator has to be their own arbiter of what constitutes success or failure, and why.

I think the success/failure binary is an oversimplification anyway. And I give myself a fair bit of leeway for “failure” anyway, even in pieces that I’d consider “finished.” There’s only so much a person can accomplish in life, and creatively. I try to do the best I can with any given piece of work — but I realize that means the best I’m capable of at a particular moment in time.


Shawn Syms has written about sexuality, gender, politics and culture for nearly 25 years. His poetry, fiction, essays and other writing have appeared in The Journey Prize Stories 21, The Globe and Mail, National Post, Xtra, Spacing, The Rumpus, Broken Pencil, Reproductive Health Reality Check and about 2 dozen other publications. He has work forthcoming in Poetry Is Dead and People Are Starting to Talk About You: A Celebration of New Gay Poetry (Rebel Satori Press).