Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Failure and Experience

Ryan David Jahn has a stimulating post on the myriad ways our works fail, and the extent to which we can be embarrassed by our early efforts...or even, in retrospect, by our published efforts.

His assessment, like Paul Valery's observation about poems, is that a work is never really finished, only abandoned. The hope, I suppose, is that as we mature we do our reworking more completely and more expeditiously, and therefore abandon our fiction a little more closely to the ideal, unattainable, point of true completion.

I can't argue with that. But reading RDJ's description of his filing cabinets full of early stories and novels--works he now sees as having been nowhere near as good as they could have been--has made me reflect on the role of experience in our writing process.

I'm not talking about life experience here. I'm familiar with the belief that a wide experience of life and years of hard knocks are vital seasoning for a writer (though I'm not sure I entirely buy it. For every Ernest Hemingway or Jack London you can name, I can give you back a Stephen Crane or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or, best of all, an Emily Dickinson. Some writers get lifetimes of perspective from the merest crumbs of life experience.) What I think is often overlooked is writing experience--the sheer number and variety of works undertaken.

I've seen any number of writers spend years writing and rewriting the same novel, to the exclusion of all other projects, and this kind of dedication is often extolled as the kind of devotion that singles out the true writers--the Joyces, the Flauberts. Real writing is rewriting, we are told, and this is so widely repeated by writers that one must take it seriously. (Though I also take Byron seriously when he said, "...I can never recast anything. I am like the tiger. If I miss the first spring, I go grumbling back to my jungle again; but if I do hit, it is crushing.")

There are many metaphors and analogies for the novel, from Colin Wilson's "philosophical experiment" to the various architectural images on down to the concept of a journey or expedition. All are valid. And no one wants a sloppy experiment or a slapped-together cathedral or a stumbling-blind journey. Fair enough.

Yet there is a kind of knowledge and skill which cannot be gained by the meticulous reworking of a single novel. Failed novels and stories are, as RDJ notes, often blush-inducing (despite occasional flashes of quality). Yet I think these failures are valuable in terms of writing experience. The range of characters, the different approaches to style, the possible story structures--and all of the ways those can either fail or enhance a work--are the kind of bone-deep understanding that comes only from experience.

What's my point? I suppose I'm saying that, as everyone (except Byron) agrees, rewriting is vital. But so is first-draft writing itself. Most of us are standing atop a considerable stack of unpublished and unpublishable work. Do I wish I had stayed focused on improving that first novel I cranked out? Not really. I learned from my efforts at rewriting it, but I think I learned much more by moving on to the next, and the next...

And, who knows? Maybe I'll go back and do more rewriting on some of those old manuscripts some day.

Meanwhile, I'll go grumbling back to my jungle.


RDJ said...

I'm in the middle of reading THE MIDNIGHT DISEASE by Alice W. Flaherty, a book on neuroscience and writer's block, and in it there is a section that discusses prolificity and quality.

Releasing books too frequently can get you labelled as a hack. One must suffer for years on a project if it's to be any good.

Except, according to Flaherty, that's just not how it works. Mostly, she says, those with the most home runs also have the most strike outs, which means what they mostly do is step up to the plate again and again and again. The Babe Ruth theory of literature. Those with the most masterpieces are also those with the most useless crap hidden away in trunks or burned in the fireplace to avoid posthumous blushing.

The point, I suppose (and as you said), is getting stuff down and learning from it.

There are exceptions, of course (and it's just a brief aside in the book, not really explored), but interesting if only because it goes counter to standard thinking, as you noted in your post.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Ryan--

Yeah, I've read Flaherty's book--an interesting perspective since the author herself is not only a neuroscientist but also suffers from the writing disorders she analyzes.

Prolificity seems to get you the hack label in the US more than in Europe. Simenon was always kindly regarded over there, despite his sheer volume.

The stack of unpublished material isn't often discussed by writers, but the few that talk about it have some surprising things to say. John Nichols (The Sterile Cuckoo, the Milagro Beanfield War) claims to have written over 80 (!) books, of which only 15 have been published.

We don't really have any idea how many books major writers begin and don't finish, or finish but never mention; but I suspect your filing cabinets aren't out of the ordinary among pusblished writers.

And I don't know how to classify the output of people like Philip Roth. Roth publishes a lot of novels, but he also claims to frequently write 100-200 pages before he finds a story and a starting point, at which point he tosses all but a sentence or two...

Neil said...

What an excellent couple of posts. I might follow up with one of my own.

Matt Curran said...

Hi David/Ryan

Ditto - great posts from you both.  That's true enough about prolificacy in the UK - in fact publishers over here seem to demand it (why write one book when one book can be two or three turning a 660 page novel into 3x220 page books). 

I'd say that labouring over one book for years isn't always a good sign as it can be symptomatic of over tinkering or an idea that wasn't quite there in the first place (you can never have perfection, but you can always get a stomach ulcer). I agree, books that don't take long to write could be hack-work... or they could be fully realised and clear in the writer's mind not to warrant years of hard-writing, but weeks.

My first published book, The Secret War , took years and years to write, on and off since I was 17 years old.  The finished manuscript went to the printers in 2006 (14 years after I put pen to paper, and about 12 drafts later).  And it shows, I think.  It's still a flawed book to the point I'm considering revising it once the English rights revert to me in July, as it is a product of many, many changes, to characters, plotting, setting, tone - you name it.  Don't do it you might shout... But the flaws are like an itch between the shoulder blades no matter how it flies against my writer's common-sense.

My second book, on the other hand, took just two years to write, it was relatively painless and I won't be revisiting it as I'm pretty satisfied with the outcome.  True, the book wasn't an easy one to write (what book is?) but it arrived on the screen fully-formed with regards to plot and characters before I typed the first words.  The Secret War didn't do that.  Even the Black Hours has been quite an easy ride in comparison.

I think you can tinker too far with an idea, hoping that you can make a purse out of a sow's ear by blindly hacking bits off it; all you'll get in the end is a very sad looking lump of gristle. Sometimes an idea or an aborted project should stay in the cupboard (god knows I have so many myself). The Secret War might fall in that category but the problem there is that it forms the first book in a series... And there's been enough praise to persuade to address it's shortcommings.

You learn from every project that falls behind - like you said David, it's all about writing experience, isn't it?

Tim Stretton said...

I find if I have a day where I write 3,000 words, the result will be more satisfactory than if I labour through 500. I think momentum is important. Grinding through a novel at a snail's pace is--for me, at least--a recipe for tinkering, procrastination and loss of rhythm.

There was a great piece in The Guardian recently about the drop-off in the quality of Iain M Banks' work since he'd slowed down his production - although the cause and effect relationship could be interpreted in two opposite ways here.

Alis said...

I think it gets harder to abandon work the better you get at the craft - you begin to feel that you have the tools at your disposal to make it work, so you keep having at the MS until it is a miracle or a mess and even you are not entirely sure which.

I relate to Tim's post about the 3000 words that come fluidly being better than the forced-out 500 and I'm reminded of Sebastian Faulks' taking just 6 weeks to produce the masterpiece that is Engleby. 6 weeks.... I dream of such fluency.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Neil--

Looking forward to reading it!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

I guess I should have been more precise when I talked about writers who struggle with one novel for years and years.

What I really meant was writers who write and rewrite the same novel to the exclusion of all other writing. Plenty of writers have a project they return to again and again (and often never finish), while writing up a storm on other projects. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, since the writer is still accumulating a lot of experience in their other projects.

As to rewriting SECRET WAR even though its already published--well, there's ample precedent. To cite one famous instance, John Fowles rewrote THE MAGUS long after publication. (I believe that one of the main changes was to make the sexual content more explicit, which I guess he didn't feel he could do while his mother was still alive!) And, of course, Stephen King eventually released a "Director's Cut" of THE STAND.

As you say, SECRET WAR is the foundation of a series, and that has special implications. I've often been surprised that Tolkein didn't take a whack at rewriting THE HOBBIT, since it is utterly out of tone with LOTR. (On the other hand, I guess THE HOBBIT was already a belvoed children's book, so perhaps that wasn't an option.)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Ah, momentum is lovely. When one can get it.

For me, the speed of the writing doesn't vary much, so the daily production is more a matter of the hours invested.

The big difference for me is purely internal--there are times when the writing feels as if it is pulling me along, and other times when it feels as if I have to push. Give me pull over push any day.

(I'll have to go hunt up that article on Banks.)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

"I think it gets harder to abandon work the better you get at the craft - you begin to feel that you have the tools at your disposal to make it work, so you keep having at the MS until it is a miracle or a mess and even you are not entirely sure which."

I'd never really thought about that before. It's an acute observation.

In fact, I'm going to go think about that for a while.