I spent a precious hour yesterday leafing through lousy drafts–words, sentences and paragraphs that strained and grimaced, that were missing vital organs–the sounds, images, energy and depth of good writing. I was looking for something good to offer the world, as Lewis Hyde says, to move the gift along. It was one of those times when writing felt more like a burden than a gift. Too much of what I found on those pages seemed like failures. A reader doesn’t want to see scribbles, torn drafts, dirty coffee cups and a slovenly desk littered with failed prose lurching its slow way to success. But this is truth: Writing is messy and confusing, and it’s failure that leads me through thickets and second growth with not so much as one bud or berry to feed me. I’m tired and grubby, and I wish I’d been–what? I cannot wish away writing because this is what I have long and persistently wished into being.
Readers and other writers, though, might need to be reminded that the practice that leads to failure also leads eventually to success. I find the gaps in a story and stitch them together, clear out the clumsy bits, rethink what I don’t know, keep failing until I succeed and then that page of limp words begins to stand up straight, combs its unruly hair and looks ready to face the world. Like Frankenstein’s monster it leaves the lab and goes out into the world. Maybe the neck bolts and stitches are still obvious, but it’s alive and once loose is beyond my control. It rises from the page and will not be undone.