A few scenarios of failure
Rupa is sixteen years old. Rupa has a lot of passion for life. Rupa thinks she is a writer. Rupa keeps a pocket book handy at all times in case her inspirations escape from the leaky recesses of her brain and she fails to catch them in flight.
So Rupa has been scribbling for a while, mostly about love, passion, roses. At social gatherings, her parents often urge her to read out her poetry. It’s probably her imagination but she’s been noticing a lot of people heading towards the food or feeling suddenly thirsty the moment her parents mention her most recent inspired moments.
John is finally retired. He has moved to Florida. In addition to watching a lot of TV, walking the dog, meeting his children who are now spread out all over the globe, he is now into writing. Someone told him his life experiences have been invaluable. So he decided to put them down on paper. John intends to self publish these one day.
Strangely, his sons have been always getting important phone calls right around the time he has moved towards reading out one of his paragraphs to one of the boys or getting to the point of asking a friend for a foreword to one of his books.
Raina is in college. She always received an A in high school English class. Now she is in a large school in a university town with an overwhelming number of people from various backgrounds very different from hers. At the beginning of the school year, she had no doubt that she would do well in English in college as well.
As a result, she had planned to put more effort into the other difficult courses she had taken but had no doubt she would ace her English classes. It was going to be simple– she had even made a nice cover page template with the teacher’s name spelt correctly on top for the first few papers.
Raina became more and more disappointed through the term as her papers came back with red marks all over. In high school, teachers had never used a red pen. Only blue.
Rupa, John and Raina have largely reacted to this response to their writing in roughly the same way. Rupa is now no longer as keen to note down her ideas in the pocket book. John is thinking fishing might be a better past time after all. Raina has not stepped in the direction of her English instructor’s office in three months. In fact, the other day, she saw someone like her instructor in the bus. She couldn’t be sure because she had stared steadily at the passing trees through the window for the rest of the journey until her stop came.
Why writing failure feels different
In writing, more than in many other aspects of human endeavour, when we fail, we fail badly at taking failure well.
I have often wondered why.
I think one of the main reasons why we don’t succeed at facing writing failure is because when we write, we put ourselves out there quite directly making ourselves vulnerable to the reader. It does not matter if it’s fiction or an essay removed from our own experience. The very act of thinking aloud through writing makes us feel exposed.We cannot help feeling that we are our writing.
The less experienced we are, the more a part of us as us gets out there. So a rejection of our writing seems like a rejection of us, not like something we have done and can do again–a skill we can improve upon.
If a carpenter makes a chair, say a bad chair, and the chair is rejected, he could think of making another with a different design. If a scientist’s paper is disproved, it can lead to professional disappointment. But will it lead to self-doubt regarding the ability of the scientist to solve a problem? I don’t know. I’ve heard that this does happen when it is someone’s life’s work. But when writing is rejected, it is felt like a rejection of the self of the writer too many times even in the realm of the daily and the mundane such as an emotional email or a blog.
This is why, making fun of bad poets is such a good sport. Making fun of bad carpenters? Not so much.
Writing is also different from other pursuits in another aspect. Ultimately, once you have pointed out the flaws in grammar and structure etc. in a piece of writing, other assessment criteria can never be completely objective. So when we fail, not all of us can understand why we’ve failed nor figure out where we can improve. Placing the onus on the reader also comes easy–the audience, the teacher, the friend didn’t really understand what one was trying to say or was biased, if not against the writer personally but against the viewpoints expressed.
If we are trying to learn biking and we fall down a couple of times, we have faith in ourselves that we will ultimately pick ourselves up and learn the skill. It’s just a skill. Everyone learns.
But not so with writing. There is a romantic aura surrounding writing which makes us think that it can’t be learnt. As though one is born with the inspiration to write.
So if enough people are critical of our writing, we start thinking we are not meant to be writers.
Continued on How to fail better at writing (Part 2)