Failure is essential. Many times I’ve met writers who think that they must be brilliant in their first drafts. They put pressure on themselves to craft everything beautifully from the start. They fear the drop, like a tightrope walker who sees the gorge not the rope. There are some who won’t even begin, so frightened are they of getting it wrong. To me, the point of a first draft is to be rubbish. It’s to fail. It’s to throw all the elements into a messy pile and sort out the bits you want. You’re not presenting the meal, you’re gathering the ingredients.
There is no purity in creation. The murkier it is at first, the more you discover unexpected treasure. If you want to make something beautiful, start with the ugly. Honour your mistakes and cherish the unintended consequences of what you’ve done. It might surprise you to find something good in there. More often, you may not recognise that this is, in fact, what you have. You need to drag it into the light and see if it looks like something you want to be friends with.
John Cleese has it right when he says that there are two modes – open and closed. When you’re thinking, creating, trying to come up with stuff, the open mode is essential. Throw out all sorts of ideas, without judgment. Let them tumble. Don’t be afraid to say or write something stupid. Lose your vanity. Some of your ideas will be dull, some crass, others twee. Some might be interesting. Rarely will there emerge a poem or a story or a song, fully formed, ready to put on its shoes and buy you a drink.
When an idea turns up that looks like it might be worth teasing out, a thread asking to be pulled, go into the closed mode. Start exploring that avenue alone for the moment to see where it leads. It may be a dead end – but a dead end is only the point at which you go back and see where you branched off. Retrace your steps. Were there any ideas left in your initial mess that might also be worth following? Did some new ones occur to you in the course of pursuing the one that didn’t work out? Were you surprised by a thought that came to you when you weren’t looking for it?
Nothing is ever perfect. Nothing is ever entirely what you intended when you set out. Failure is an option to be embraced. You may get nothing – the point is to explore. The journey is where it’s at. And sometimes you hit a wall.
So here’s a tip, not original but good. When you hit that wall, don’t just sit there, do nothing. Procrastination is one of the most important tools a writer has, because it builds your pent-up need to work. When you despair of ever putting down another word, tell yourself that you’re right, and just take up cricket, or make a cup of tea, or prepare a meal.
Then as you look the other way, crying into your pancakes while sipping Earl Grey and batting for England, your evil mind will play around with the idea-corpses you’ve abandoned. It will make Frankenstein connections in your subconscious, and surprise you with a spark of life. Some other part of your mind will have punched out a brick in that wall.
It helps to get over yourself. Overcome your fear, your pain, your lack of confidence, which you do by acknowledging and accepting them. Or ignoring them completely – denial also works. Lose the struggle against yourself and let the writing take over. It might still be no good. And that’s fine, because you have to get it out before you can start making it great. When the artist disappears, the work can begin to shine.
Naturally, you can’t force brilliance, unless you are naturally brilliant. Most of us just try to be in the space where the work is intended to happen. If nothing comes, that’s allowed. Sit there, be selfish, say no to other demands, lose the guilt – which can be considerable. It’s often difficult to explain to others that you need solitude to work, but it is important to have that headspace, that private place where you are allowed to fail and be grumpy and unlivable with, and boring and obsessed and unattractive, while you’re working. Most people think books write themselves. They don’t see the process, and it’s not pretty when they do. Because writing often resembles doing nothing at all, it can be harder to justify to those who need your time and attention unless your writing contributes to the household finances, which it rarely does.
It’s not their fault, but civilians sometimes can’t understand, and you must not let that bother you, even as you risk alienating your nearest and dearest. They may think that your compulsion to work is akin to having a mental illness, and they would be perfectly right. No one of sound mind would be a writer or an artist or a musician but there are those of us who must do it, who have no choice. A writer isn’t what we are, it’s who we are. We’re a weird mob.
Writing happens more easily when you’ve prepared a place for it. David Lynch calls this a ‘set-up’. It’s because writers are quiet that no one expects them to need space and solitude. But if an artist started painting in the living room while his other half was trying to watch Borgen, there would be ructions. If a musician took out her electric guitar and started practising in the bedroom while her husband tried to knit a pair of socks, words would be had. It helps to live alone, or with someone who has compassion for and understanding of your antisocial need.
The bottom line is, as the saying goes, applying the bottom to the chair. Having told yourself that you’re allowed to fail; and found a space in which to write, you have to be there. You have to face the blankness, accept the fear, embrace the panic. Think yourself no good if you must, but also tell yourself that it will get better, that you’re now going to write. You are ready for beauty to come in wearing an ugly shirt, and you have full permission to remove it.
(c) Patrick Chapman