Boulders and Hills

I was quite struck by this video. The phrase ‘exploring the wilderness of your intuition’ especially caught in my mind. I have been thinking a lot lately (maybe to a slightly unhealthy degree) about failure and how we know when we’ve failed at something. How do we know when the better course would be to accept defeat? I suppose the message in Fired on Mars is that defeats, even large ones, can still be spun into opportunity.

On Writing Excuses recently Mary Robinette Kowal drew a distinction between ‘mistakes’ and ‘failure’, where a mistake may well be the doing of something wrong, or poorly, whereas failure is repeating the same error, over-and-over, without learning from it. This distinction has given me a framework to dwell on. I wrote my first novel manuscript twenty-odd years ago. I’ve been writing fiction consistently since then. I passed the ‘million words of awful’ line years ago. I must now be approaching ‘two million words of awful’, I suspect. I’ve written every day for years at a span. I’ve read other people’s stories extensively. I’ve pulled other people’s stories apart to try and work out how they knit together. I’ve read books on craft. I’ve been part of multiple workshops over my last twenty years. I’ve written stories that were mimicries of other voices. I written stories totally from my own heart, without reference to any other notions of narrative. And you know what? I still can’t write a decent story to save myself.

I enjoy the act of writing fiction. I really do. I feel a happier, better… more full human being at the end of any day in which I managed to scribble just a few short sentences. But there is a point where it becomes hard to keep going. The overwhelming feeling that I’m simply going to repeat all the mistakes I’ve already made, and that for some inexplicable reason, I have a block against learning how to do this right… it is a hard thing to fight past.

This isn’t to say I’m at the point of giving up. As I said, I enjoy writing. At worst, I may have to accept that I am writing stories for myself and the crickets, post them to various places, and try not to pay too much attention to whether or not they ever get read. I’m okay with that. In a similar vein, I also do some amateurish oil painting, but I’ve never tried to sell a canvas to anyone. I give them away, when finished. I usually discover at some later point that the canvas is bundled away in a cupboard somewhere. But that’s fine. I shrug and smile and keep working at making the next painting a little bit better than the last one.

I think the way forward may be to foment a similar mental attitude to writing stories. It’s okay to try and fail, and fail again. Just as long as there is some, even incremental, improvement, and as long as it is still possible to enjoy the creative process. That seems okay to me. So perhaps this isn’t a matter of accepting failure, so much as accepting that the task I am engaged with is a Sisyphean one. As long as I still enjoy pushing the boulder, perhaps it doesn’t matter so much if I never reach the top?

Something to think on.