Learning to Love the Fail

Writing hurts. If it doesn’t, then you’re not doing it right. David Rakoff – in a delightfully cranky response to the idea that an artist is an artist regardless of whether they actually do any work, epitomized by the singing slugabeds in Rent – adeptly notes that writing is not something that comes naturally or even gets much easier with experience. The opposite is often true. “[Writing] still only ever begins badly, and there are no guarantees that this is not the day when the jig is finally up,” he says in the essay “Isn’t it Romantic?” More pointedly, Rakoff perfectly sums up the way I have come to feel about my own writing. Whatever you put on the page, Rakoff says, it “always, always starts out as shit: an infant of monstrous aspect; bawling, ugly, terrible, and it stays terrible for a long, long time (sometimes forever).”

Of course, there are worse jobs than being a writer. Lots of them. I have sprayed enough yellow lines down the centers of suburban streets and said “Hi, my name is Brian, and I’ll be your server this evening” enough times to know that being a freelance science writer is infinitely preferable to any other job I’ve ever had. (For one thing, you don’t have grumpy chain-restaurant managers bugging you to sell more margaritas during a slow Wednesday afternoon shift.) I keep an old Target nametag in my desk drawer to remind me that if I don’t feel like writing, there’s always the prospect of being hurtled back to a customer service job where I can field angry complaints about why the latest light-up, sit-and-spin play chair is out of stock. But between the degrading reality of all those nametag jobs and the illusion of the writer as an artist who wakes up, feels inspired by the morning sun, and pounds out a perfect chapter or two before lunch, there is The Work.

Six years ago, when I started blogging, I was content to simply empty the contents of my brain into WordPress. Composition was easy. Eventually, mercifully, I realized that most of what I wrote was crap. My enthusiasm for ideas marred my execution, and I learned to agonize over my writing. I spend far more time writing, rewriting, and editing now than I did then. In fact, writing anything takes up more and more time as the days and weeks tick by.

Anything from a blog post to a book is not something that comes out perfect the first time. As William Zinsser reminds overly enthusiastic authors in On Writing Well, “The newly-hatched sentence almost always has something wrong with it.” The variations of what might be amiss are endless. The writer has the task of sifting through the ungainly mass of verbiage in the hope of turning excrement into gold. Failed experiments litter Word files strewn across my virtual desktop.

Ugly and volatile combinations of words have been blowing up in my face more than usual lately. That’s because I am working on my second book, A Date With a Dinosaur. I desperately want to outdo myself with this book, but I am not making it easy for myself. Not with the pages I have been producing lately. And I am continually frustrated by the way beautiful, humorous, and evocative sentences seem to flow from the keyboards of other writers. I don’t feel much comfort in knowing that they were probably stuck in a similar mire of anxiety and frustration when they wrote their books. I can spend all day reading Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris, trying to learn what makes their work so engaging and funny, but when I plunk myself down to make use of those lessons I end up betrayed by a sudden loss of inspiration and an inability to articulate thoughts in just the way I would like. More than once, I have gone back to read something I thought was witty, clever, or insightful and only come out with the reaction “Why the hell did I write that? That’s terrible!” Furious tapping of the “Backspace” key immediately follows.

A few months ago I met paleontologist Kevin Padian for lunch on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Hot dogs and cans of soda in the warm September midday – perfect. Toward the end of our dinosaur-filled conversation, he asked me what I had learned while writing my first book, Written in Stone. (A title I now almost regret because I can’t say “writing Written in Stone” without sounding stupid. But the choice will assuredly be worth it when I can issue an ironically-titled update, Written in Stone: Revised Edition.) I said that I wished I had taken a slightly different approach – that I had talked to and visited more paleontologists to tell a story about science rather than just explain what had been discovered and what questions remained.

But Padian’s question wormed its way into my head and took up residence. Was that all I had learned? No. I learned that explaining scientific ideas in a simple way isn’t the same as being engaging or entertaining, and the difference between something that is accessible and something that is interesting requires a mind-numbing amount of work. Composing the kind of book I want to write now – the dinosaurian equivalent to Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, or Mary Roach’s Stiff – is not simply a matter of finding all the relevant pieces to the story and slotting them into place. That’s just step one – the assembly of a skeleton. To make that narrative come alive and grab the reader with its literary jaws, I have to look for the appropriate sites for connections – muscle attachments and other bits of soft tissue – before building up to the final, complete narrative that is based on all that deep, structural restoration that no one will directly see.

So when DeLene Beeland asked me to respond to her own outline of “writing lessons learned” from composing her first book – The Secret World of Red Wolves – the lesson which immediately sprung to mind was “I hate my writing. And that’s ok.” It is probably the most valuable thing that has come out of my attempts to write my second book. Don’t misunderstand. I am emphatically not taking the defeatist route of “My writing stinks. Nothing I can do. Oh well, time to blog. Blog. Blog. Blog. I like fossils. Blog. Blog. Blog.” What I mean is that I am unsatisfied with almost everything I write, but rather than try to suppress that self-doubt or give up on a story I feel driven to tell, I need to put in the requisite effort to bridge the gap between the story as it exists now and what I want the finished product to be. Nothing I have ever written has come out perfectly in the first run. (In fact, I don’t know if anything I have ever written has come out perfectly.) If there is someone who can simply dash off a brilliant book without all the frustration and hand-wringing, good for them. I’m not that person, and writing is always a struggle between the story I want to tell and my ability to tell it.

There are other, more practical obstacles, too. DeLene covers a number of these in her post. Determining the focus of your story and when you have enough background information to start putting together that narrative is something every nonfiction author faces right from the start. Friend and fellow science-writer Steve Silberman dropped a nicely succinct expression of the latter problem when I chatted with him about book writing at the last Science Writers conference in Flagstaff, Arizona. Even if you know what your story is and what you want to say, it can be difficult to pivot from the research phase to the writing phase. I really liked his use of the word “pivot” for this – the idea of using built-up momentum and transferring that energy to a very different kind of activity. Sometimes the pivot is smooth and graceful. For me, the pivot was about as fluid as a tortoise trying to do a 180 degree turn. For science writers, especially, who are constantly bombarded by a string of new studies, there is always a reason to say “No, wait, I need to do more research.” At some point you simply need to grit your teeth and say “I’m writing this book, damn it.”

DeLene covers various other points that anyone who wants to write a book eventually faces. Finding the right voice, developing structure, keeping the greater thread of the story in mind as you write each of the bits and pieces – all significant steps. I recommend that you read her post, if you haven’t already clicked over to do so. But, as DeLene says, “The process of writing a book is surely as different for every writer as the fingerprints inscribed on our digits.” What works for her and her book may not work for me or you, and, if you have any interest in writing a book, I urge you to also pick up a copy of Zinsser’s On Writing Well for encouragement and insight regarding the various technical issues long-form writers face.

Writing a book is an intensely individualistic process. You can imbibe various lessons and survey what other people did in order to transform an idea into a finished manuscript – despite the fact that your book will eventually look like it is bleeding to death from all your editor’s notations in red pen, the story will recover – but, ultimately, each writer needs to find their own method. There are certain points that every writer has to reach, from identifying a story to the construction of a cohesive narrative, but the pathways to those points are as varied as the individuals trying to reach them.

For me, though, the most important step has been what I once heard comedian Stephen Colbert call “Learning to love the fail.” When I write something I hate, I am immediately faced with a set of questions about why that particular passage doesn’t work and what I can do to fix the problem. Is the weakness something as simple as poor word choice? Should I just toss that sentence? Do I need to start over? If I am shallow and egotistical enough to be enamored with everything I write in its raw form, then I am never going to learn anything. I have found that failure is essential – I often need to express ideas the wrong way before I can figure out how to successfully revise the passage I’m struggling with. I have not yet mastered the disposition of being happily unsatisfied during such moments, but I’m working on it.

Top Image: A young Allosaurus on the back of a Barosaurus at the Natural History Museum of Utah. Composing a book can feel similar to digging up, assembling, reconstructing, and restoring a dinosaur. Photo by the author.

7 thoughts on “Learning to Love the Fail

  1. Hey, Brian! Thanks for this post. I found it very interesting – and also very timely; I’m teaching an intro history of science course this term and I need to think about how to help my students (mostly scientists and engineers) write a history of science term paper… 🙂

    Cheers, Keynyn

  2. Philip K. Dick wrote “Galactic Pot-Healer,” about (among many other things) a ceramicist who specialized in fixing broken pots. At the end of the book, he sets out to create a pot of his own for the first time. The skills are there, his motivation is strong, the equipment is familiar, the work goes smoothly, and he fires it in his oven. Then he sets it on a table and appraises it. The book ends, “The pot was awful.”

  3. Hi Brian, inspiring post. I can relate about feeling that there is something in what you write all the time. I’m also working on a book now and your friend Steve’s use of the word “pivot” is spot on. One simply can’t shake the feeling that everything has to be in order for one to jump into writing phase. It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one haunted by such things. Best of luck with the new book!

  4. >>Six years ago, when I started blogging, I was content to simply empty
    the contents of my brain into WordPress. Composition was easy.
    Eventually, mercifully, I realized that most of what I wrote was crap.
    My enthusiasm for ideas marred my execution, and I learned to agonize
    over my writing. I spend far more time writing, rewriting, and editing
    now than I did then. In fact, writing anything takes up more and more
    time as the days and weeks tick by.<<

    That's what I'm afraid of, which is why I didn't start blogging earlier: I'm like that wrt scientific publications (and the end results are still sub-par), and I fear my happy-go-lucky posting will deteriorate into sluggish plodding through word salad.

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  6. Brian. Keep up the good fight. And if you can deliver “the dinosaurian equivalent to Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, or Mary Roach’s Stiff” I will pre-order, right now.

  7. I can see how you see growth in your writing style, but to be honest with you I think I liked your earlier writing better. It was, I guess, more enthousiastic, ‘realer’ in a way to me. Nowadays, your posts read as oversmoothed writing with an all too great awareness of writing ‘so that everyone can understand’. That’s fine as goes scientific outreach to lay readers, but to me it’s largely lost the appeal of your earlier writings in which you appeared to be writing for yourself and to people who were at least somewhat familiar with the subjects you wrote about.

    I still read your posts and while I tend to enjoy reading them, they don’t make that much of an impact on me anymore. I can see, from reading the comments, that I might be an exception in here though. Proceed as pleases you in any case.

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