creative process

The Joys of Failure

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”-Robert Browning

Writers are constantly failing. By this I don’t mean that writers must face rejection on a regular basis, although we do. I don’t mean that it is hard to get published and hard to sell your books when you do, although this is true. What I mean is that writers never quite manage to create the work they believe themselves capable of creating. The story is never as fully or beautifully formed as it is in some deep part of the imagination.

You reach for the perfect synthesis of language and idea, the ideal way to invoke a story with these symbols on paper or screens. Sometimes you get tantalizngly close. You write something and the process is complete flow, you lose yourself. When you go back to edit and revise, you’re surprised to find that it speaks to you almost as much as it did as you were getting the words down. You know that you have given all you can give and written the best that you were capable of at that time. Yet there is always a nagging sense that it could have been better, that your best was not what you wanted it to be. A famous writer once said that novels are never finished, they are simply abandoned. You could keep revising forever. At some point you have to make the choice that it is done even though you know that there is more in you if you can only find it, if you can capture that flash of inspiration and have the skills to do it justice.

We writers don’t compare ourselves to average people. We compare ourselves to the people we read– to Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde or Dostoyevsky. When you make comparisons like that you’re bound to feel like a failure. That’s not a bad thing. It is the sense of failure more than anything else that spurs the artist on. If you’re completely satisfied with what you’ve already done there is no reason to push for more.

This is a short film featuring the ballet dancer David Hallberg.

Although he does not use the word “failure” Hallberg describes what I am talking about: the inspiration that comes from not achieving the ideal.

“…That’s what keeps me motivated as a dancer,” he says. “It attracts me to this art form. There is this level that you will never attain but you so desperately reach for. No other art form does that in the way ballet does.”

(That sentence sounds much more poetic, I now realize, when it is combined with the visual of his movement.)

Ballet has its own way of reaching for perfection and falling short, but every artist, within the bounds of his own form, aspires to attain a level that is always just beyond his grasp– the impossible dream, the unreachable star. When the muse whispers in your ear, she says, “Good try, but you failed. You can do better.”

When you experience that flash of lightning and you write something that you know has stretched your ability as a writer, when readers respond to it, it makes the years of work, the rejection and everything else that comes with this career worth it. That feeling lasts only for a moment because right away you begin to wonder, “Was that a fluke? Can I do that again? Can I do better? Is there more in me? How do I get back to that place, that moment, when it all flowed and my training kicked in and the book seemed to write itself?”

“It haunts me,” Hallberg says of such moments. It is haunting indeed.

Write What You Wonder

I am republishing here a post that I originally wrote for the blog Book After Book.  I appeared back in November 2011.

Write what you know. As aspiring writers we had this drummed into our heads. Write what you know.

I took this advice literally when I sat down to write my thankfully unpublished first novel. It was the story of a person like me (an introverted, slightly intellectual, average looking suburbanite), in a situation like mine, whining about the things that were bugging a person just like me and arguing that the reader should take her side. It was dreadful stuff and I thank God every day that I could not find a publisher for it and that print-on-demand and Kindle did not yet exist. I would never have lived it down.

Plumbing my own life for interesting narratives never yielded much. That is not to say I did not try. Oh I tried. I tried. I tried to make a novel out of a painful, but in retrospect silly, one-sided love affair. I started one on my dabblings with Eastern religion. I tried to turn my professional radio experience into a humorous novel. I tried to write about what it felt like to be in a legal battle with a Russian ballet company over producing a tour of Swan Lake. Yes, I really did have this experience in my life. On the surface it seems as though it has all of the elements for a great drama, exotic foreign characters, legal wranglings, an inside look at the world of ballet, high stakes and hard emotions. Yet I never could really get it off the ground. I was too close to it.

Here is the problem with writing “what you know.” You are limited. You know what happened in life, and you stick to it. Your imagination has no room to play. Your personal relationships and your desire to see yourself in the best light color your story telling. You also feel the drama so keenly that you tend to assume readers will also, so you forget to actually spell the emotions out. You think they’re there because just mentioning the situation may make your emotions soar or drop, but that doesn’t mean a reader will feel the same.

There is a personal danger in writing what you know as well. To grow as a human being, you need to move on from your past. Rehashing the drama of your past instead of living your life in the moment is not the healthiest thing for the writer as a person. Contrary to the suffering artist mystique – I’m going to bust all the myths today – you really do better work when you are healthy.

I never quite succeeded in producing a novel until I stopped trying to write about what I knew, and started to write about what I wondered.

It began in 2000 when I took a bus tour of the beautiful Mount Rainier in the state of Washington. My tour guide was an entertaining middle aged man who described the mountain in poetic terms and kept talking about burning out on his old job. Towards the end of the tour someone finally asked him what his old job had been. He said, “a minister.”

What would cause a burned out minister to leave the church for a job as a tour guide? Was there something that connected religion and natural beauty that appealed to him? Why had he left the ministry? Was his new setting a form of worship? What about the fact that the mountain was actually a sleeping volcano waiting for its next eruption? How could a story about a minister leaving the ministry be related to that?

There were so many questions that my mind could not help coming back to. “Why did the minister go to the mountain?” was a writing prompt that never failed to get me going, thinking, exploring. I used it for ten years. That prompt produced another complete novel (as yet unpublished) that spun off in a surprising direction. (The final version has no minister or mountain.) And eventually it produced Angel.

The answer to the question of what metaphorical volcano shook the minister’s comfortable church life finally came in the form of a man whose beauty captured my imagination. His face reminded me of the angels in Renaissance art, and I wished I could paint. This, too, ignited my curiosity.

What was it about beauty that called out to our creative urges? Was it a desire to capture something that we know is transitory? Is there a spiritual element to the appreciation of beauty or is it mere objectification? What exactly is it that is pleasing about a beautiful face?

Suddenly my two curiosities collided and created a third question: What if the minister fell in love with a beautiful man? What if that was the thing?

From that point I wrote in flow as though the characters– the minister and the beautiful young man– had independent existence and I simply had to take dictation. My novel, Angel, was released by Itineris Press on September 27 and has been getting over all favorable reviews. My life is in it, of course, but there is nothing autobiographical about it.

Write what you know, yes, if by that you mean ground your story in reality. Draw on your experience and your life and make it all truthful and real. But if you want to be inspired, write what you wonder. Write about what piques your curiosity. Keep exploring the questions you can’t let go.

More Goofing Off and Daydreaming: More Creative Thinking

“This can be one of the trickiest parts of being a writer, this need to fool around to be creative, and to be okay with that.” From her book A Year of Writing Dangerously.

In his post In Praise of Goofing Off, psychologist Dennis Palumbo notes, “Some people call it puttering, or screwing around, or just plain goofing off. Others, of a more kindly bent, call it day-dreaming. Kurt Vonnegut used the quaint old term ‘skylarking.’


“What I’m referring to, of course, is that well-known, rarely discussed but absolutely essential component of a successful creative person’s life — the down-time, when you’re seemingly not doing anything of consequence. Certainly not doing anything that pertains to that deadline you’re facing: the pitch meeting set for next week, the screenplay you’ve been toiling over, the important audition that’s pending.”

More Goofing Off and Daydreaming: More Creative Thinking

Understanding, Acting, Empathy and Closed Comments

I recently discovered on the Huffington Post that there is an area where all of my past comments on stories are archived.  I decided to take a little time and go back through what I had commented on in the past.  I don’t have a memory of the details of most of the stories.  One comment, however, caught my eye.  It was a reply to one of my comments that I had not seen back in the day.  I immediately wanted to post a reply, but because it was a story from 2009 and the comments are closed, I could not.  This created enough of a sense of frustration that I decided to post here.

The story in question was about a film or theater production, I do not recall which, that had angered the deaf community by casting a hearing person in the role of a deaf person.  As I recall, without re-visiting the story, I agreed that the producers had probably made the wrong decision in this case.  That there are many excellent deaf actors available who could have embodied the role with skill and who could have brought all of their experience to bear in bringing the character to life.

What I took issue with, however, was a sentiment I saw expressed repeatedly in the comments of the story that only an actor who has a particular life experience should be allowed to play a role.

Let me be clear, there are two issues here.  The first has to do with a kind of institutionalized prejudice, and this is wrong and is, I believe, what most people are actually reacting to in this story.  There was a time when it was traditional for a white actor to play the role of Othello, largely because it was assumed a black actor could not be found with the depth and skill to carry it off.  The problem in casting a white man is less to do with his ability to empathize or create the character but with the assumptions behind the casting choice.

In the story about the hearing actor, the real problem is that there were presumably actors available who could most likely do a better job at the part.  They would naturally embody the habits and understandings of a deaf person more than any hearing person could. It would be easier for them to be convincing and on point.

Getting back to the other issue, though, of whether an actor needs to live the life of the character he plays I would say emphatically no.  As I wrote in my comment on the site:

“…acting comes down to depicting a life experience that is not your own. So I couldn’t make a hard and fast judgment that casting a non-disabled actor, for example, is by definition the wrong choice. When it comes to casting, the person who can best convey the emotion the story teller is trying to get across is the best choice. In many cases the person with the same life experience may be that person, and it would be a shame to overlook that. But if an actor who has never been a soldier can bring a war film to life, then they can probably convey other life experiences as well.”

As with most comments on a blog, this was hastily written as a quick reaction to what I was reading in the comments section. 

So perhaps I could have better emphasized that I was not saying that the right decision had been made in this case or that hearing actors would be better for deaf roles or spelled out what I did just now about the separate “Othello question.” 

What I am saying, and I have posted it often here in relation to writing, is that writing what you know and acting what you know are not literal.  If writers could only write about their own social categories and experiences and actors could only perform their own social categories and experiences every writer could create only one book and every actor play only one role.  Empathy and imagination are ways of “knowing.”

With all of this background, I now get to the response to my original post.  A fellow reader was offended by what I had to say and replied:

“Life experiences??

Do you know what it is like to be taught how to speak with no real concept of understanding what sounds are?? Do you know what it’s like to be linguistically delayed because the focus is entirely on how to speak words correctly rather than understanding how the language is structured?

Do you know what it is like to be dependent on someone else to talk, to understand those around you?? I mean, come on, even when you are on your deathbed, you are afforded the right to speak to those who you love around you without aid.

Do you know what it is like when your family rejects you from the dinner table because you cannot chew without making so much noise and not know about it? Do you understand what it’s like to be delayed in school because your peers had the privilege of being able to hear the teachers while you have to toil and work in reading all the materials, hoping that the teacher didn’t say something outside of it? Do you understand what it’s like to be told that the language you’re signing isn’t a real language and makes you look like an idiot??

No hearing person can EVER understand what it is like to be Deaf. There is NO life experience that a hearing person can go through that is remotely similar to the Deaf.


So let me say what I would have posted in reply had I known about this comment at the time.  Obviously the poster feels passionately about this issue and, I assume that he is deaf himself and felt that I was minimizing his experience, which was not my intention.

I cannot know what any of that feels like first hand.  Nor can anyone who has not lived it know what that feels like or how he might react or behave in response to the situations he describes. 

What I was trying to say was that the job of the actor is not to live another life but to embody a character who is different from himself.  To better illuminate this idea, I want to give some other examples of life experiences, the ones that come to mind involve crimes so I want to make it clear from the outset that my intention is not to equate having a disability with being a victim.  Rather the point is that these are experiences that anyone who has not lived would be foolish to claim he fully understands.

There are many excellent movies about the holocaust, actors are called upon to play victims of Nazi persecution.  Can they claim to know what it was like to be rounded up for being of the wrong ethnicity and living in a concentration camp?  Of course not.  Can a person who has not been raped claim to know what it is like to be the victim of rape?  Or can someone who has not lost a child know what it is like to lose a child? 

Playing a role is a different thing than living a life.  I think there are few people who would argue that an actor should have lost a child to play a grieving mother. 

In my original comment I began by saying I was ambivalent about the question of whether hearing actors should ever be allowed to play deaf characters.  My ambivalence comes down to this:  there is a social aspect in the casting of a role as I explained earlier with Othello.  It seems most likely that a deaf actor, all other things being equal, would be the best candidate for the role.  And it is quite likely that there is a bias at work here in a false idea that there must not be deaf actors out there who would do the job as well.  This has to be accounted for and corrected. We should always try to be aware of our biases and correct them.

On the other hand, if things are not equal, that is, if one actor is clearly more skilled than the others who are within the available pool of actors, then she might to better service to the character and to the audience’s understanding of the character than a less capable deaf person would. But if the choice is between a mediocre deaf actor who knows what it feels like to be deaf but can’t express it as well to the audience, and a tremendous hearing actor who doesn’t actually have first hand experience but can really convey to an audience “what it is like when your family rejects you from the dinner table,” then I think the drama and understanding is better served by the second actor.

It might help to get away from deafness to make it clearer.  A less talented actress who has actually lost a child might actually be worse at making an audience understand that loss than a more talented one with healthy, living children.  (Or even for that matter a more talented childless actress.)

My point, leaving aside the specifics, is that an actor who has an experience that he is not able to express well is not better than an actor who can imagine and convey well an experience that he has not personally lived.

So, as with most any debate, I am the voice saying context matters.  That “it depends” is a better answer than “they never should” or “they always should.”

All of this, of course, brings up more interesting questions of social identity.  Which social categories do we feel comfortable with actors transgressing and which don’t we?  Is it OK for a white actor to play a Native American?  How about a man playing a woman (as in Shakespeare’s day)?  A straight actor playing gay?  Thin playing fat?  White playing black?  What does it mean that we single these categories out?  Does it feel different if one of the social categories is your own?  (As a fat girl, I hated the casting of Rene Zellwiger as a woman with a weight problem in Bridget Jones’s diary.)  Does it feel different when it is reversed and the member of the social group with less power plays the one with more social status?  Black playing white for example?  A woman playing a man?  Gay playing straight?  Deaf playing hearing?  Those are all interesting questions for what they say about our society.  Questions that I’ve been babbling too long to address here right now.  Talk amongst yourselves.