Repeat After Me: “I Am Not the Great American Novelist.”
Michael Bourne on What It Really Means to Accept Failure
“Kill your darlings.”
This venerable nugget of writing advice is often attributed to William Faulkner, though in fact the British writer Arthur Quiller-Couch said it first. In a 1913-1914 series of published lectures at Cambridge University titled On the Art of Writing, Quiller-Couch said:
If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.
In his faintly pompous way, Quiller-Couch—who, incidentally, is thought to have inspired the doggerel-composing Ratty from The Wind in the Willows—is admonishing writers to excise preciousness from their prose. But notice that he tells writers to go ahead and write those purplish perorations and then cut them. Embrace the bad, he seems to be saying. Wallow in your pretentions to greatness, then edit them out before the public sees them.
Great advice, but I’d argue it doesn’t go far enough. Just as you have to cut the precious phrases from your early drafts to make a book come alive, you have to excise the preciousness from within yourself, that vision of yourself as a great and important author, before you can write freely in your own voice. To do that, you have to fail—and not just fail, but learn to incorporate failure into your process.
Every writer fails. It’s just the nature of the beast. You can’t will yourself to stop writing bad fiction. You can only, slowly, over time, learn from your mistakes so you can start making different ones. This requires, first, that you see your work clearly and honestly and cultivate a trusted circle of writers and editors who will catch what you miss. Then you have to listen to what they’re saying and not only fix the problems but understand them so you don’t go on endlessly repeating them. And finally, you have to remain patient because you’ll fail again in new and different ways. It’s the only way you’ll ever succeed.
I should know. I spent decades doing precisely the opposite. I failed, over and over, and learned surprisingly little from it. Now, in my mid-fifties, I’m about to publish my first book, the novel Blithedale Canyon, but that book only exists because l finally allowed my exalted sense of myself as a Great American Novelist to die a late and unlamented death.
A little background: When I was fourteen, I wrote my first short story, an elaborately plotted Ray Bradbury pastiche, and my high school newspaper published it. I published another story or two before I turned to playwrighting and churned out a dozen plays which were performed by amateur and professional companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and, most improbably, Australia. Twice, my plays were performed off-Broadway as part of the Young Playwrights Festival, a remarkable youth theater program then headed by Stephen Sondheim.
Looking back, I’m struck how little effort I put into all of this. I was your basic pot-smoking, TV-addicted American teenager. I imitated Ray Bradbury because he was one of the few authors I’d actually read. I wrote in quick, careless bursts, writing a draft one weekend, waiting a week, then writing a second draft, at which point I was done with it
I thought that’s what writing was. I thought being a writer was like having a magic power, like being able to kiss your elbow and disappear. I thought either you could turn out a publishable story in a couple weekends, or you weren’t a writer.
Today, I can see how lucky I am that my run of success ended when it did. The crash and burn of my early twenties forced me to look plainly at the addictions that had helped fuel my ascent. In that way, failure was a godsend, possibly even a lifesaver. But at the time I figured that once I’d cleaned myself up and returned to writing, the Midas touch I’d enjoyed earlier on would come back, too. It didn’t, at all. Instead, I stalled out for decades, writing stubbornly mediocre stories and novels no one wanted to publish.
This happened, I think now, because I never quite let go of that teenager’s notion of writer-as-magician. For a few years in my late teens, I believed, I had possessed that magic power and then, abruptly and for no reason I could fathom, I lost it. It never occurred to me that I was simply older, and my work was being judged by the standards of a mature artist not merely against the weekend jottings of other half-stoned, woefully under-read teenagers like myself. I thought I’d blown it. I thought I’d done something wrong, that I was wrong, in some permanent and irreparable way.
All this took me to some pretty dark places. My entire conception of myself was bound up in being that kid who knocked off a play in a weekend and had it performed off-Broadway. I had good jobs and bad ones, I fell in and out of love, but none of it mattered if I couldn’t be that kid with the magic touch.
I kept writing, but I wrote defensively, writing transparently autobiographical vignettes that I polished and re-polished in an endless, obsessive loop. I was writing not to learn and explore, but to avoid screwing up, and the results were as predictable as they were unreadable: safe, dull stories that did everything right and still put you to sleep. Worse, when my work failed to find a home, I persuaded myself that the problem wasn’t me, but everyone else. Other people—agents, editors, writing profs, you name it—just didn’t understand my work. I was misunderstood, you see, a victim of groupthink and blinkered tastes.
I wish I could say I killed off that pernicious darling within, throttled it into submission like a hero in a Marvel movie, but that’s not really what happened. A more honest accounting would say I simply grew up. I got married and adopted a child and somewhere in that blur of poopy diapers and juggled nap schedules, my teenage magic tricks lost their emotional pull. I had much less time for my own writing, but the fiction I produced in the hours I managed to salvage between teaching work and childcare was smarter and more interesting.
This makes a certain kind of sense: Nothing brings you more in touch with your own fallibility than raising a child. People try to be perfect parents, and on Instagram it can sometimes look like they are, but anyone who’s cared for a small child knows it’s a daily drumbeat of failure. To stay sane, you have to accept that you’re blowing it and try to pay enough attention that you blow it a little less epically tomorrow.
This is the approach I try to bring to my writing practice today. Everyone from aspiring novelists to would-be Silicon Valley visionaries loves to quote Samuel Beckett’s now-famous mantra from his late-career prose piece “Worstward Ho,” “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” but as a culture I think we still see failure through a curiously moral lens. To succeed is good, to fail is bad. It’s one thing to talk, as I have here, about past failure, but to have standing to speak about it—for it to have moral worth, if you will—I have to have succeeded, by, say, publishing a book.
But that gets it all wrong. I haven’t succeeded because I failed. I’m still failing every time I sit down to write; I’ve just gotten better at learning from it. That’s the lesson of raising a child and it’s the lesson of writing fiction. It’s the lesson of doing anything truly difficult. You never “figure it out.” It never becomes easy. You just learn to accept your failures and do whatever you can to fail a little less epically tomorrow.