Writing when there’s nothing left to lose.
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer
“You might never fail on the scale I did, but it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.” JK Rowling
I’m back from my last-gasp-of-summer vacation to the Grand Canyon, and it’s been tough jumping back into the stream of daily life. I’ve talked about the importance of routines before – particularly when it comes to consistent creative efforts – but I’ve also stressed (I hope) that breaking out of your routine and “filling the well” is equally important. As I sift through the experiences of the last few days, I hope to find some material, some insight and some inspiration.
And I took plenty of pictures of that big, great hole in the earth that truly is “grand.”
In the meantime, I’d like to talk a little bit about success, failure and giving yourself room to try, try again.
We all know Yoda said, “Do, or do not do, there is no ‘try’,” but on this one point I beg to differ with that great Jedi master. I think it is crucial to “try,” especially when we can’t predict the outcome of our efforts. There’s always a kernel of capriciousness in any endeavor, and as a writer it’s extremely important account for the unaccountable.
It certainly nice to start off a story with a good idea of what happens in the beginning, the middle and the end, but sometimes the unforeseen destination is the most enjoyable. You never want your plot to fall completely off the rails, but even at its most chaotic, the unpredictable outcome is sometimes the most enjoyable.
Just last week, I set out on what I thought was going to be a boring demonstration of new generator and ended up touring a state-of-the-art tomato farm. I stared up into the peaked roof of the greenhouse, surrounded by green vines, tomatoes in every ripening hue while bumble bees buzzed lazily down the aisles, and I was in awe – I’d never expected to end up in this cathedral when I’d started out my day. And yet, there I was, in a location I could not have imagined learning answers to questions I’d never thought to ask.
And it was wonderful.
As writers, I think we’re most truly on our game when we venture into unknown territory. When we’re forced to think on our feet and maneuver in a moment, our sentences are crisper, our descriptions are vibrant, narratives are stronger, and our writing comes alive. You thought you were writing a simple story about a dog and his boy, and then suddenly your swooping to the left as soldiers invade your pages, then you’re dodging a falling boom as a battleship sails past. Next thing you know, your character is on an island, or in a fancy ballroom, or trapped in an underground bunker – someplace you never thought he’d end up.
An important part of spontaneous creation involves the freedom to fail. We can’t really explore uncharted territory as writers if we’re afraid of all the ghouls and goblins that lurk around every corner and behind every tree. It’s true we may not come out of that forest alive; we may not survive that trip into the jungle or that descent down the mountain, but that failure only opens up more opportunity to succeed further down the line.
We live in a culture that’s becoming increasingly intolerant of failure. I quake when I think of kindergartners staring down the barrel of the first day of school at an elite academy designed to propel them from primary colors to academic decathlons to the Ivy League and all it’s spoils. There’s no margin of error in that equation, and if I learned nothing else from honors physics, I learned that you must always account for the margin of error (Thanks Ms. Badziok!)
So next time you sit down to write, try to be fearless. Try to be free. Try to worry less about success and instead aim to fly in the face of failure.
And remember what failure really looks like:
- Walt Disney filed for bankruptcy and was fired by a news editor for “lack of imagination.”
- Twelve publishers rejected Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
- Albert Einstein’s parents and teachers thought he might be handicapped because he didn’t walk until age 4, and didn’t speak until age 7.
- Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime.
- Steven Spielberg was denied admission to USC two times, so he ended up going to Cal State Long Beach.
- Stephen King’s wife literally pulled his first novel, Carrie, out of the trash – King had tossed it after receiving 30 rejections.
- And Decca Records infamously declared, “The Beatles have no future in show business.”
As those examples prove, what many perceive as failure is just the first step towards success.
“Fall down seven times, get up eight.” – Japanese proverb
- On the Benefits of Failure (unsanityfiles.wordpress.com)
- You only fail if you give up (victoria-writes.com)
- Dealing with Failure and Misplaced Ambition (thedailycreativewriter.wordpress.com)
- Structure + Choice (twowritingteachers.wordpress.com)
- There’s victory in every failure (cristianmihai.net)
- The Importance of Failure (mxkremzen.com)