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By Chris Hutton
You have a right to fail. Dwell on that for a minute. Sometimes as writers we forget that we will fail and that failure is okay. It is just one stop on a very long road.
Now by failure I don’t mean that all writers are destined to the status of eternal starving artist, but that all writers will hit stumbling blocks. We will miss a deadline, lapse in our writing, or just write something plain awful.
Expect this failure. Accept it, and take solace in knowing that you can find successes after the fall. If you expect perfection that’s just a sure way to never finish anything. Admittedly this is a superlative statement and thus somewhat questionable, but the essence boils down rather simply. Seeking perfection we will dwell too much on every detail and in so doing impede our momentum and our ability to move forward with a larger whole. The strain of that task shall become too great to bear.
Take one of my favorite examples. In Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft he discusses writing his first novel, Carrie. At the time he started the novel he had been aiming to write a short story for submission into a men’s magazine. Very early on he decided to abandon the story altogether. It didn’t move him, he didn’t like the lead, he wasn’t writing what he knew, and he knew the story would be too long to be accepted for submission. In one sense you could say he had failed in his goal. He’d gone over the word count and found himself disliking the story that he was telling. That being the case, he literally threw the pages away. If his wife had not discovered the manuscript in the trash and encouraged him to finish it, if he had accepted it as a failure and left it behind, his first novel as we know it never would have come to be.1
Looking at my own writing, when I push through the first draft of a story I can dwell on crafting the perfect sentence or I can push forward with the larger story. If I focus sentence by sentence I may have a few well-crafted lines at the end of the day, but my story will have barely progressed. This approach kills my momentum and I am likely to never reach the end of the story, the slow-pacing of focusing on the minutia dragging beyond the limit of my inspiration. If, however, I allow for imperfection, then I can push through that initial draft of the story, mapping out the overall movements, and fine-tuning sentences and editing in subsequent drafts. The short stories featured on my web site for instance are first draft stories. I push straight through not allowing myself the benefit of a second draft. I do this to meet the time constraints of weekly postings, but also to force myself to complete the stories rather than to hold on to them and fine-tune them over the course of years (which I would do without the promise of an imminent audience).
Even if you do strive for perfection in a rewrite, you can once again find yourself stuck never finishing the rewrite process. There will always be more that you can do to perfect a story, but at some point you just have to call it finished.
Again looking at King’s On Writing, he describes his own rewrite process and his limit on drafts, holding himself to a strict two drafts and a polish. Conversely, as King also mentions, Kurt Vonnegut rewrote every page of his novels until he had them perfected, sometimes only covering 1-2 pages a day.2 To each their own. No rule is universally applicable.
In my own work, I first started my teleplay for Dream Walker in the fall of 2006. I continued tweaking that script through 2012. To this day, however, I could still return to that script, but factoring for diminishing returns at some point you have to move on.
Natalie Goldberg described the art of writing as practice in her book, Writing Down the Bones. Here she detailed the story of how her writing students could set too high of expectations for themselves, deciding to “write the great American novel,” and not writing “a line since.”3 As she describes, setting that expectation of perfection, of greatness, writing becomes a “great disappointment,” and furthermore “that expectation would also keep you from writing”.4 If we refuse to bend, to accept our own failures, then every act of creation becomes too burdensome and impossibly Herculean.
So next time you find yourself daunted by the prospect of perfection and your inevitable failure, remind yourself in the words of Natalie Goldberg “I am free to write the worst junk in the world”.5 It is extremely freeing, and you just might actually get something finished.
Happy Writing, All!
2Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), p209.
3Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p11.
4Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p11.
5Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1986), p11.