Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

Brace yourself.

I’m about to tell you something you won’t like to hear. Are you braced?

Okay.

Here it is: You will fail. “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” (Casablanca, 1942). It is an unavoidable fact that no one can get through life without failing. Most of us can’t get through a day without failing, failing to keep our tempers, to remember to mail the letter, to land an agent even after the hundredth query letter.

Nobody likes to fail. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. It can also wound our sense of self. I am a writer. If I fail in a writing project, am I failing at being me?

On the face of it, failure is a bad thing. It hurts, it depresses, it sets you back. And yet, Truman Capote the father of the nonfiction novel once said, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” I suppose you could argue that only by failing do we truly value success, but that’s not much comfort when you’re looking at a rejection letter or contemplating starting that painting over from scratch.

So before you hit delete or start scraping paint of of your canvas, stop, and really look at what you have done. You failed. Okay. Set that feeling aside for a moment, and think about what you can learn from this failing. Everyone knows the Thomas Edison quote about finding 10,000 ways that won’t work, but you only recognize those ways if you are comfortable living with failure. You have to learn to look failure in the eye.

Ask yourself three questions:

1) What parts of this didn’t work? Usually failure is not absolute. Your colors were off but the composition is fine. Once character falls flat, but the plot is solid. To say “this failed it’s all chaff,” is unfair to you and to the work.

2) What parts of this did work? Even if it’s one sentence, find it and recognize it for the good work it is. Why did this work? How can you infuse this into the rest of the piece?

3) Where do I go from here? Failure can only defeat you if you let it keep you from moving forward. Once you know what worked and what didn’t, plot a strategy for your second attempt.

* Title from Samuel Beckett‘s Worstward Ho

In case of emergency…open book.

“You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.” – Neil Gaiman’s lecture to The Reading Agency 10/14/2013

When I was a child, maybe ten or twelve, my mother worried that I read too much, and that the books I read were somehow damaging my sense of reality. I told her I wanted to travel. I wanted to see the world. I wanted exciting things to happen. And they did, every day, in the pages of my books.  I would argue that it is impossible to read too much but she was probably right about my sense of reality.

Real life simply isn’t good enough. I want to change it. I want to make it better.

Those stories gave me permission to dream. They taught me how to imagine and how to hope. And they also taught me how to face the world, how to empathize with others. I learned that I could face terrible challenges and come out stronger on the other side. 

Books made my world richer, deeper, broader. I believe (really and truly and to the depths of my soul) that they made me a better person.

You too can become a better person. You can escape from whatever troubling, bewildering, or painful situation you find yourself in. You can learn to change the world.

All you have to do is pick up a book–and open it.

Creative Communities

As a creative person, you probably spend a lot of your time alone. No matter how extroverted you are in real life, you know that the only way to get that project done is to lock yourself in a room alone and write/paint/sculpt/sew or whatever it is you do. Eventually, though, you hit a point in the process when the sound of your own internal voice is so loud that you lose all sense of perspective. You can’t tell whether a scene is fully fleshed out, or whether your knowledge of what’s supposed to happen is coloring your reading. You can’t tell if that puff-sleeve is adorably retro, or if it looks like it belongs to a five-year-old girl. You can’t tell if that chord progression is unexpected or the first three chords of a theme song from your favorite TV show. 

You could post your work (or recordings or photos of it) to the internet and see what the cyber-community has to say. But then your are opening yourself up to the trolls that stalk the webiverse, these nasty buggers make a habit out of picking at projects like a toddler with a scab. Exposing your work to them too early can mean a project dies before you even finish it. And that, my friends, is why you need a creative community. It doesn’t have to be a big community. The people in it don’t even all have to work in the same medium that you do. What’s important is that they’re willing to look at your work and give you honest feedback, and that you are willing to do the same for them. 

A good creative community, like my current writers’ group, is a mix of styles and perspectives. It has between three and six people, letting you get multiple viewpoints without taking hours. The group members are respectful of each other, but they’re not afraid to tell you when something just doesn’t work. They meet regularly (in our case, once per week), which means that you absolutely must finish this draft by such and such a date or face the displeasure of the group. 

Now that you’re convinced what a great idea this is, let me give you some strategies for how to start your own creative group.

  1. Talk to your friends. Creative people attract other creative people. You probably have three or four friends or friends-of-friends who would be into this. If not, send them this  blog to change their minds.
  2. Try the internet. http://www.meetup.com/find/ is a great place to connect with other creative people in your area. Plus it’s free to join. Full disclosure: I found my current group on Craigslist. 
  3. Be Bold. Make some flyers and put them up at the local library, colleges, performance spaces, asking for creative types to join you at a coffee shop. Then show up on the day advertised and see who’s there. You can always hide under a table if they seem creepy. 

The Naked Truth

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating–good art offers a connection, between the artist and the viewer, between the writer and the reader, or between the performer and the audience. At the end of the day technical skill and novel concepts are nothing if the connection is not there.

So how do we, as makers of art, create connections with our audiences?

By being honest with them. By stripping away all the protective layers that we as human beings gather around ourselves and saying “Here is the crushing grief of losing my cousin to suicide. Here is the irrational joy of dancing in the rain. Here is the dull cloud of depression descending on my solitude.”

Honesty isn’t always pretty. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes its embarrassing. Sometimes it makes you sob. But we, as makers of art, have a duty to strip ourselves down to the bone. It is the only way we will ever make a connection.

My friend John Coons, recently published the first episode in a web series about the most pivotal romantic relationship of his life. ‘Six Months for Six Weeks’ tells the story of a relationship with an expiration date. The story of two gay men, set against the backdrop of the gay marriage vote in Maine. I’ve known John for ten years or so now, and I recognize truth of what he is showing his audience. More importantly, people who have never met him recognize it too.

It wasn’t easy for him to write those  monologues. The song about his mother will break your heart (though that one hasn’t yet been released). But John was willing to strip himself down to raw emotion, to tell his story as only he can tell it.

In ‘Six Months for Six Weeks’ John did what Neil Gaiman urged all writers to do:

“Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.”

So if you want to create something that touches someone else (And lets be honest, that’s what every maker of art wants) strip yourself down, then sit down, shut up, and write something.

* For more on ‘Six Months for Six Weeks” click here  **Warning some adult content** or visit the Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/sixmonthsforsixweeks

The short story manifesto

Many writers see short stories as a stepping stone to novel publication. If we can convince a magazine or two to pick up our short fiction, it’s more likely that an agent will give our novels a second glance.

Believing this, I have recently been reading more short stories in literary magazines to get a better idea of what’s being printed. And I’ve come across a strange phenomenon — short stories have no plot. At least, the last few I’ve read in well-respected literary magazines don’t. What they have is a main character whose mental state is elucidated through a series of vignettes that are not necessarily in chronological order.

I don’t like this trend. I write stories because I love stories. I love their power, and their artistry, and their ability to connect people across time, space, and cultures. Much of this power rests in plot – the constant forward pull of action and reaction.

These modern short stories have no real beginning, middle, and end. They are not grounded in time and space. The characters drift in a dreamlike state through a barely connected series of unbelievable events. Each event is a tiny story in itself, but it does not drive toward a greater whole. I find myself often entertained, but just as often unable to connect with these characters. They do not affect me for longer than it takes my eyes to skim the page. I do not stay up nights thinking about them. I certainly do not dream about them.

I have read short stories that stick with me, that keep me awake and follow me into dream. I hope someday to write one like that myself.

Maybe it will make me nonpunishable, maybe I am uncultured or out of touch with modern thought, but I intend to keep writing stories with a beginning,middle, and end. I intend to allow my characters to be pulled along by plot. And I intend to make that plot believable – at least within the context of the world I have created.

In a world of mad gunmen–why writing matters.

I am a writer. I am not a police officer, a social worker, or a nurse. I do not save lives. I cannot point to anything I have done at work on any given day and say with certainty that I have made a positive difference in someone’s life. Why then, do I bother? Why should you?

Because stories are a vital tool. They prepare readers to face challenge and tragedy and they help readers process and deal with pain after the fact. I remember reading “Thirteen Reasons Why” a couple of years after my cousin died by suicide. The book, in case you haven’t heard about it, tells the story of a young man trying to deal with the suicide of a girl he went to school with by listening to the recordings she left behind. *

Reading it was painful, of course, and I spent a significant portion of the book on the verge of tears. But it was also comforting. Comforting to know others could feel as I felt, to be given a framework for grief, to know that I was not alone in this pain.

Writing, good writing, makes a connection between the writer and the reader. It comforts and it teaches. It gives us a safe space to test our emotional responses.

I would love to hear about the books and stories that helped shape the way you look at the world and those that comforted you in hard times. Please share them with me by posting them in the comments.

* Jay Asher, Razorbill, 2007

Practice Makes Improvement

I had a conversation with an artist today, who wanted me to write the content for her web page. While discussing our respective creative outlets I said, “People think that anybody can write, just like people think that anybody can draw.” 

She told me, “Anybody can draw. I’ve been teaching drawing for years, and I’ve only had one student, I couldn’t teach. She just kept saying, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t do this.’

“And she couldn’t,” I said, “Because she kept telling you that.” 

I realized that I hadn’t said what I meant. What I meant was, people believe that they should be able to sit down and write something, a letter, a poem, a novel, just because they know how to string words together into something that might resemble a sentence. 

But if you want to be a good writer, a good artist (a good anything really) you have to do it every day. You have to work at it and think about it and learn about it. It helps if you can talk to other people who do it, especially other people who are better at it than you. If also helps if those other people are willing to critique your work, to push you to get better. 

The beautiful-horrible thing is, that old adage “practice makes perfect” is wrong. You’ll never be perfect. (Even Fitzgerald could have improve his prose through a more reserved approach to adverbs.) But you will improve, little by little, day by day. 

So sit down, shut up, and write something.