How do you deal with failure as a writer?
David Huddle tackles this question in a chapter of The Writing Habit called “Let’s Say You Wrote Badly This Morning.” In some ways this book is pretty dated–my copy was published in 1991–but the necessity for a writing habit isn’t something that goes away … and neither does failure. Huddle compares artists to athletes, which, I will admit, is not the most exciting comparison. (Not to me, at least.) But the idea of putting failure to some use is interesting.
To be honest, I very often feel like I’ve written badly this morning. (And when I don’t, someone usually comes along to tell me I have.) Usually when I’m satisfied after a writing session, it’s at having written more than because I’m impressed with what I’ve written. Maybe I’m weird this way.
But what Huddle says at the end of this chapter, before his string of epilogues, about achieving “a circumstance of ongoing work,” reminded me of some of the things I’ve been thinking since last semester.
I know that I’ve talked a lot about Flannery O’Connor here. But the reasons for this are that 1) she is awesome, and 2) her writing has really helped solidify a lot of things for me. Reading this chapter from Huddle and thinking about dealing with failure reminded me of two quotes, the first of which comes from a letter to a friend of hers experiencing a dry spell in writing:
“You ought to set aside three hours every morning in which you write or do nothing else … but you sit there. If you write all right and if you don’t all right, but you do not read; whether you start something different every day and finish nothing makes no difference; you sit there. It’s the only way, I’m telling you. If inspiration comes you are there to receive it, you are not reading.”
She also said this about herself:
“I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well.”
To her failure is not speed bump in the work of writing; it is part of it. Failed writing is not wasted writing, even if it ends up in the garbage can (or the recycle bin on your desktop).
I guess this isn’t exactly comforting. It doesn’t make me feel good about those “failed” mornings—like the past two mornings, mostly spent poking about in word documents and wondering how on the earth I thought these things would fit together and made a story.
But it is nonetheless encouraging, in the sense that it gives me courage. I feel that it teaches me plainly what I’m supposed to do. It makes me feel like more of a writer. Like I’m actually doing the work that belongs to writing, and not just daydreaming about “the muse.” (Which is what I did in high school and first started writing For Real.) That writing badly is just as much a part of that work as inspiration and doing well. I guess this relates to Huddle’s idea of putting failure to use—those failed mornings are part of the success, when it comes.