To get anywhere in life, you have to do a lot of stuff wrong first.
The day after feeling super accomplished about my writing, where I was on top of the world with some great news, I went to a writers group where I’d submitted a story I knew needed a lot of work. It was good. Everyone's critique was helpful, with their comments purposeful and and directed at all the story's problems.
Even though the critique was great and exactly what I was looking for, I left with that King of the Mountain feeling from yesterday gone. I'd written a shitty story. A bad story. An awful story. I wasn't on top of the world anymore, I was back to being just me, trying very hard to take a half-baked slurry of ideas to the world and serve it up as stew.
After group, I stopped at my favorite coffee shop for the restroom and an iced latte, and then walked the last two miles home with my fly down.
Failure doesn’t discriminate by how it humiliates you.
That all said, for me, failure isn’t the end of the line. In the case of my story, yeah, it’s a mess. Yeah it needs a lot of work. Yeah, I did so much research and included too many ideas and now there's so much going on there's nothing going on. It needs a firm structure and characters to peg it to the ground and leave it squirming there in agony, and then people will stay to look at it. If I hadn't known that, though, I wouldn't have any idea where to get started in editing. In this way, what you may see as failure, I see as practice.
If I were to give up in this situation, this story idea I love so much would be reluctantly dragged to that corner of my hard drive where bad ideas go to die. But I really love this story. I believe in this story. I feel like with the right amount of kneading and punching, this story’s conglomeration of way too many ideas can be cooked into what I want. (Insert your own baking analogy, I’m out).
So, I’m taking my own advice. The same simple stuff I used to dole out when I was a therapist. Clients would often be tearing their hair out after metaphorically banging their head against a rock, hoping for something other than a concussion. And, as their therapist, I would tell them gently (sometimes more than once) to try something different, and then quote everyone's favorite definition of insanity, for laughs.
NOT FAILURE, PRACTICE:
This time, rather than writing this thing over and over again hoping for a different result, like I have been doing, I’m going back to square one. I’m going to review my favorite book on writing. Starting with the chapters on beginnings and endings. Then the chapter on structure. And then finally the chapter on plot.
After that, I’ll go analog. I've hammered out everything so far about this story on my laptop or my phone. Not this time. Pen and paper, baby. I'll write outlines in a Field Notes notebook, do blocking on graph paper, keep everything I have on it away from all notions of what it was before. It's like rebooting, but with tree guts.
Basically, I'm removing contextual cues. By taking away all objects I associate with what the story is now, I am forcing myself to reframe my conception of the story. When we look at something we love and have failed at and want desperately to succeed, this is one tactic where we can make it work: remove all familiar aspects of what it was, and then turn it into what it needs to become.
It's worked in AA for years.
Failure can only be conquered by doing -- by reading, experiencing, and learning, among other things. And then by applying what we have learned with what we already know. If we let our failures beat us by not turning them into practice, we let failure win by not learning from it, and possibly not improving. If we turn it into practice, we can see how it can feed us and turn us into better workers, and into better people.
I'm gonna turn failure into practice today by making a new rule:
Triple Check Your Zipper Before Washing Your Hands. Every. Single. Time.