This is your permission to fail

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sometimes people email me, or comment somewhere on this blog, and they are asking for advice. Usually they are young folks who are inclined towards writing but they are worried that they are not particularly good at it. I would love to be an old wise person who knows everything, but most of the time with writing I feel like I am about as good at it as I am at assembling Ikea furniture. Without instructions. In the dark. Underwater.

See what I mean? I'm not even good at metaphors. (And I consider writing to be one of the things I'm better at in life. You should see me try and operate a washing machine. I have a long and storied history of mixing darks and colours, and ruining all the clothes.) So I do not feel I am in a position to be doling out advice. (I give advice anyway. My main tips for life are: 1. be respectful towards everybody, 2. avoid scumbags, 3. have fun.)

And here is the real and awful truth about writing (and probably about other things, too, but I've been alive for all of five minutes and I've been focusing on this, mainly. Maybe next year I'll take up dance): beyond the basics, advice is not going to take you very far.

The state of fear and unknowing about your own skills is likely something that will only lessen slightly with age and practice (unless you are arrogant, in which case I wish I were you!). But that is what makes it magical when everything goes right, and you recognise something that you have written as great, or someone else does. Someone who perhaps has the power to share it with other people.

Every now and then someone comments on this post, from two years ago. Recently, I got a comment, asking Should I work so hard just to possibly fail? You know, the sort of doubts that are always creeping in when you are writing. (I imagine all writers are like this.)

I ramble a bit, but this is what this post is really about: Failure. And failure as a writer.

Sometimes I see advice from writers saying: don't write a novel! You'll fail and get all disenchanted and never write again! Instead write short stories!

The problem with this is two-fold:
1. It reflects the writer's personal experience, as all advice does. Everybody is different, everybody writes differently. (You have to be very selective when you are reading advice. I think mostly people just write advice to their younger selves, even if they don't know it.)
2. You can't ever really, truly fail when you're writing. You can write things that will never be published. You can write things that are just plain bad. You can invest hundreds or thousands of hours in a novel that never gets anywhere. But that's hundreds or thousands of hours you've spent getting better at writing. Hopefully some of that you enjoyed. Hopefully there are things you will bring to the next novel you write.*

So here's this: Go ahead. Write a novel. Wouldn't you much rather start writing today than not, and wonder in one or five or ten years what might have become of that novel? If your novel is terrible, you don't really lose anything - you've spent time developing your ideas, or expressing yourself, or whatever else. Maybe you've enjoyed parts, and shared them with your friends. Everyone looks back on their teenage poetry and cringes but for a lot of people, I think it was really important to them at the time.

Be willing to fail. You don't really gain very much in life by holding back because you're afraid you'll fail. You don't give yourself opportunities to succeed. And writing is the sort of thing you learn by actually doing it - all of the advice on grammar and adverbs in the world will not make you brilliant. If you decide to write for the rest of your life, or try and make a career of it, you'll always be uncertain, and self-doubting, but hopefully the consistency with which you produce good work improves. People never really start out brilliant. It takes time.

But you have to start, really, and keep going. Write about whatever you want, and be willing to fail. Really, it's a very safe world to muck up in, the one on the page. (If you were considering taking up tightrope-walking or shark-baiting or something, I would not be encouraging failure.)

*And hell, I'm bad at writing short stories. I ramble. It's bad. Also all of the endings are, 'it was all a dream!' I try to do that with full-length novels, too.
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