Sarah Manguso

I wrote my college-application essay about playing in a piano competition, knowing I would lose to the kid who had played just before me. Even while I played, knowing I would lose, I wrote, still I played to give the judges something to remember. I pretended my spasms of self-regard transcended the judges’ informed decisions about the pianists who were merely the best. I got into college.

I wish I could ask the future whether I should give up or keep trying. Then again, what if trying, even in the face of certain failure, feels as good as accomplishing? What if it’s even better? And here we are again.

- “Short Days” in The Paris Review

Mary Karr

From her childhood journal: “I am not very successful as a little girl. I will probably be a mess.”

On poetry: “Working on poems is like cheating on your husband. It’s what I really want to do but they won’t pay me for it.”

On literacy: “Reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal.”

On the natural: “People have different ideas of what natural is. Since the romantics we’ve all been big fans of the natural, as though natural equals good. Shitting in your pants is natural, wanting to boink the pizza-delivery kid is natural. Stabbing people who get in front of you at the cafeteria line—that’s probably a natural impulse. Where do you draw the line between what’s good natural and what’s bad natural?”

On prayer: “I do a lot of begging. I just beg, beg, beg, beg like a dog, for myself and those I love. And I do the cursory, “If it’s your will . . .” but God knows that I want everything when I want it. He knows I’m selfish and want a zillion bucks and big tits and to be five-ten. So I’m not fooling him with that “If it’s your will” shit.”

On failure: “I keep Beckett’s motto above my desk: Fail better. A priest once asked me a very smart question, which I’ve yet to answer, or have only answered in small increments: What would you write if you weren’t afraid?”

On what is now my favorite first line of poetry: “I remember a poem about a suicidal dog, which began, ‘Don’t do it, dog.’”

- The Paris Review