It takes me about 7.62 times of starting a story to get it close to right. It will feel a little right, but then not, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’m normally not a fan of go back and edit because progress gets thwarted, but if the beginning is really, really off, there isn’t enough in the middle or end to get it back on track.
I spend a LOT of time in the beginning thinking, researching, reading, thinking. And each time that I have to start over, the whisperings of failure start appearing in my mind.
“What if I never get this on track?”
“What if this isn’t really a story?”
“What if my characters are meh?”
“What if I’m not really a writer?”
“What if I’m the biggest fraud that ever lived and my family has had to deal with me ignoring them and I have put all this time into something and cried tears and laughed joys and all of it ends up with me being a great big sucking loser?”
Ahem. That last one may be an exaggeration. Maybe.
My high school writing students are finishing their second story of the year and they are starting to know enough to understand the story isn’t where they want it to be, or to feel that something isn’t working, but they don’t know (or read) enough to know what and why and how to fix it. We do a couple days in class of what we call “Decrapification” where they have the chance to edit and tweak and fix and ask me questions before the final is due. I can see the stress on their faces as they recognize what they just wrote might not be the next multi-million dollar novel.
My daughter recently performed a piano duet with her cousin for some judges. They felt their two pieces were where they needed to be, played reasonably well, bowed, and sat down while the rest of the students in the session had their turn to perform. One of the other partners played a piece that was the same as my daughter’s.
They played it better.
And I’m so glad they did.
As she was sitting there, my daughter commented on dynamics, speed, enjoyment in the performance, etc. She is starting to know enough about music to understand the elements in her performing that weren’t as good as the second one. She saw where she did some things better, but how those some things didn’t count as much when the bigger elements (playing up to speed for one) weren’t present.
I can’t think of a single author who, either while writing or going through their first edit, doesn’t make comments about how it is splotchy, or too big, or too vague, or, or, or. Sometimes they can identify on their own what needs to be fixed, sometimes they have to rely on supporters/editors/readers to point it out.
But all of them learn something during every single book.
But for most of us, that failure that lingers in our minds is an invitation to learn – learn more about the craft, about the characters, about the business, the writing life, the time it really takes to accomplish a goal, what we, as the creator, need to do to pursue and not punish. Those doubts that creep in should be greeted with a “Well, so and so does it well, and I might not know how, but I know they do.” Self-degradation isn’t the highest form of productivity and bemoaning that something is wrong doesn’t make it better. It is dedication to continually improving that makes well-known authors well known.
What do you do when failures arise? Any favorite resources when the learning needs to be amplified?
Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter and can be found here.
One thought on “Failure and Knowledge”
Years ago, after a writing workshop and an intimate gathering of some of the writers and the visiting editor, I drove home and cried. The critique had not gone how I'd hoped. Ugh. I kept thinking to myself, “Am I ever going to get this RIGHT? Or an I always just going to almost figure it out, almost have a good idea, almost sell a book…” It was very discouraging. BUT I have learned loads since then. I can seen how I've grown. It takes time. And we have to get back up and keep going.
Thanks for the reminder!
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