Among other things I have failed at

In Creativity
October 26, 2009

Look at this. After all that creative energy on my August project, it’s been nearly three weeks since I last posted here. I think the only answer is *another project*. I am brewing ideas. Ca ira.

In the meantime, though, another attempt to turn a spoken-word talk into a post. I spoke a few weeks ago at a Royal Society of Arts event on ‘The Glory of Failure‘. I’ve been a member of the RSA for about 18 months now – originally joined to use their library and, as a subsidiary point, to make my father proud. I don’t really use the library that often – not enough space for working on one’s own computer, but the paternal pride element is stopping me de-joining so I thought I should go along to one or two of their events.

‘Glory of Failure’ grabbed me as a concept because it seemed so playful, so delightfully English, and so wonderfully undemanding as a topic. In fact, I started my talk by commenting that I wasn’t sure whether, at a Symposium On The Glory Of Failure I should try to give a really good talk, or a really bad one…

Many of the other talks had been about learning from failure, and using it to propel oneself toward success. And in some fields I can quite understand this: we had a talk from a representative of the Royal College of Nursing. He spoke very powerfully about how, for him, every failure must be a learning experience, each one must highlight the failures in the system that allowed it to happen, and show how that can be plugged. Because when he and his colleagues fail, people die. Perfectly sensible for him to try to avoid failure at all costs.

However, I think this attitude towards failure is not so helpful when it comes to the arts, to creativity, to my particular thing, writing. In fact, the subject of my talk was, perhaps, now I come to think of it:


Which I proved via the following quotes.

1. “Happiness writes white” – Henry de Montherlant

No one ever wrote fiction who was completely happy. Why would you? Fiction is what you do when your life’s miserable, or when you’re recollecting past miseries. In fact, as Aristotle said, ‘conflict is the essence of drama’ – there’d be no fiction if there weren’t conflict, unhappiness, distress. You couldn’t have an episode of Eastenders where everyone went around feeling very fulfilled, calm and full of love for one another. You simply can’t write about perfectly happy people – it’s incredibly boring. [Even Julie & Julia spend time being creatively frustrated, even with their lovely marriages.]

Therefore: all fiction writing is a symptom of failure. If one were perfectly happy, one wouldn’t need or want to do it.

2. “All writing is rewriting” – Ernest Hemingway

This is the thought that tortures me when I’m hacking away at a first draft. All this, all these gallons of words that I’m expending such energy on flooding onto the page – pretty much all of them will end up trickling away to nothing. I’ll have to start again. And then again. And then again. With my new novel, The Lessons, I had to throw out the first *50,000 words* and rewrite them from scratch. It’s demoralising. You have to write many many many words to find the good ones. Most of what you write won’t end up in the finished book. This is the way with most writers.

Therefore: most sentences that one writes are failures.

3. “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” – Paul Valery

Oh how true this is. I still get ideas for how to improve Disobedience. No one ever feels completely satisfied with the work they’ve produced. There are always ways to improve it, maybe even to start again and completely redo it. The trouble is: when you first envisage a novel, it’s a glittering, delicate, beautiful, perfect thing in your mind. Just an idea, shining and golden. And then you have to drag it into the mire of words – bringing it into the real, so much is lost. The plot becomes a little awkward, the characters who you found so charming begin to grate. The themes which once seemed sublime become trite. Everything that we create fails to come up to our deepest hopes and visions for it.

Therefore: all creations are failures, when compared to the vision that began them.

4. “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” – Graham Greene

Yes. Sad but true. Writing fiction is a way of escaping real life because, at any moment, at the point that the worst possible thing has happened to you, in the midst of grief, of loss, of misery, of anger, of fear, of bitterness, of hatred, in the middle of all these real emotions, a writer always has a tiny inner voice saying “I must remember how this feels so I can write about it later”. It’s very useful; it means that you never quite have to feel what you’re feeling. There’s always a journalistic platform to stand on, one can always be – just a little bit – an observer of one’s own life.

Therefore: the writer is to some extent a failed human being.

Should we worry about all of this? Certainly not! Writing wouldn’t be ‘better’ if we eliminated these failures, in fact it would cease to exist at all. This is one thing I know for certain:

the search for perfection kills creativity.

Therefore let us embrace the glory of our creative failures. They are also our creative successes.

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