Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Art of Failure

I just got back from seeing Ayelet Waldman speak to a writers’ group that I am a part of. She spoke very candidly on the subject of failure, which made me feel good, and not just in that schadenfreude way.

She talked about twice having to throw away novels in which she’d invested a year each. That really put things in perspective. I’ve definitely had pieces not work, but never anything I’d put that much time into.

More interesting was a story about a novel that she thought was pretty good, although she’d gotten negative feedback from everyone she’d showed it to. I’d always thought that writers needed to maintain a strong faith in their own work, and not let criticism lead to self-censorship. But in this case, Waldman went to a two-week workshop and allowed herself that time—and only that time—to entertain the idea that she was focusing on the wrong part of her story, and that she ought to re-work the novel.

Once she started down this path, the new novel just poured out of her at the rate of 8,000 words a day (1,000 daily words is pretty typical for a writer whose book is going well). She finished a strong draft of it during the workshop, and got it published soon after. (I forget which novel this was—I’ve never actually read any of her work.)

The moral, as I see it, is that when things are going badly, you don’t always know it. But when it’s going well, it just feels right.

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