The thing about writing is that, from time to time, you must confront the simple fact that what you’re writing – and, perhaps, have always been writing – is shallow, boring tripe. Stories stitched together out of internalized cultural tropes that don’t have a whole lot to do with the weirdnesses of real life.
No one sets out to write a bad story. It just sort of ends up that way.
The story I’m currently working on, it’s garbage. It just is. I don’t care about it, it’s not saying anything I give the first damn about, and it’s cobbled together from the affectations of much better writers. Thing is, I can’t bring myself to shit-can it. Not because I think there’s something there worth salvaging, but there’s a part of me too damned stubborn to declare it a lost cause, to be added to the Great Pile of Unfinished Works.
The Pile is stacked rather high with things that didn’t quite work out. Maybe you can sympathize. I’m perhaps overly attached to my failures, always eager to innovate new ones.
So I spent about three weeks banging my head against this thing, shifting sentences, skewing some context, and making the first scene fairly readable and even slightly interesting. And that doesn’t really help, because as any writer will tell you, anyone can write a decent first scene. Introduce some characters, set out a situation, and push forward towards the start of a second act. The first scene is the honeymoon phase.
The second scene – the second act – is where hubris meets the laughter of gods. Now we have a situation, one that we have to complicate and resolve at the same time, while also deepening the characters in the most realistic fashion we can, and we also have to make it all meaningful. Yeah, good luck with that. Tank the odds, turn it around to a successful conclusion, and make it believable and worth reading.
Do you hear the laughter yet? Listen closely. You’ll pick up on it. It’s easy to mistake for distant gunshots.
I had a general plot arc written out in first draft, and from a purely technical standpoint, it was an entirely functional tale that was obviously heavily influenced by Neil Gaiman and Ray Bradbury. The characters were a bit whimsical and drawn from mythology, the second act turn was simple but straightforward. There was a slight shred of humor (which I don’t do particularly well). There was a fun vibe to it (which isn’t what I was shooting for). But it was still a shallow little toy that anyone could have written, and better writers had.
I shoved the doc into a folder – not abandoned, but not actively worked on, either – and started hacking away at other things. None of which seemed to work, either.
And that’s when I got sick.
Two weeks of flu and depression and family live-and-death situations and all the other fun crushing things that seem to align themselves before deciding to collapse in all at once. Lots of time to think about dark things and melancholy shortcomings, without the energy or optimism to do much other than tremble with fever, be immensely grateful for good friends, and commiserate with my wife, who was even sicker than I was. Didn’t get much writing done, but I did get considerably caught up on YouTube videos and Avenger:Endgame trailers, so there’s that.
As with all things, the Days and Nights of Pestilence eventually came to an end. And now that everything in the house has been boiled and sterilized, I’m back at my desk, staring at this cheap plastic trinket of a story.
Nope, still can’t shit-can it. But I think I’ve got a better sense of why it wasn’t working for me. I was writing about the wrong things. I was trying to write about the sunny-day successes, about people who don’t get sick or have to make hard decisions about dying loved ones or have to face the solid brick walls of reality on a regular basis. I was trying to write about boring characters who didn’t have to fail in interesting ways.
To badly paraphrase Tolstoy, successes are all alike, but each failure is a failure in its own way. The essence of the human experience isn’t in getting what we want, but in how we deal with things when we don’t. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not enough health. Not enough love. Not enough insight. There’s never enough of anything to go around, no matter what we do or believe.
Failure changes us all in unique and specific ways, as we never have enough time to get it right or go back and fix the things we broke. We just have to absorb the damage, atone the best we can, and hopefully become better people. Failure is the foundation of compassion, and understanding, and even wisdom.
Failure moves us along. Hubris meets laughter.
So I’m looking at this draft again. The bottomless cough is almost gone now, and people are still living and dying, laughing and screaming, and the world isn’t nearly the way I’d like it to be. Our dog is just sort of staring at me because she’d like to go out and it’s been a couple of hours. I’m looking at my story draft and seeing the cowardice, the spots where I ran right up to the fortunes of failure and said, nope, not for me, we’re gonna swim right back into the shallows and splash around instead. Because that shit’s fun. Splash, splash, splash.
But no one’s giving out points for splashing in the shallows today. Ain’t what the job’s about, even if I’d like it to be. If I want this story to be a unique, meaningful thing, it needs to face its own failures, over in the depths where its feet don’t touch the bottom.
And if it drowns? Well, then it’s the story that drowned.
That’s interesting, too. Another failure, maybe, but one that counts for points.