Friday, January 25, 2013

Beckett, that Cheery Fellow

Samuel Beckett said something like this about writing:  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.

I pretty much love that.  I imagine most of us have a Platonically ideal story or novel or poem in mind when we start to work.  Or we simply set the bar high, as we should.  For me, anyway, I rarely come close.  If I'm lucky,  something emerges from the chaos, but it's almost never what I started out to do and it certainly isn't as wonderful as I'd hoped.

But it is usually livelier than some of the first drafts.  More fun to read.  Marginally spell-binding in one paragraph after all.  A trifle ruddier. Not as awful as I feared.    I'd taken Beckett's advice and failed better.

Every first draft is a total failure for me, anyway.  My Platonic ideal for one is very, very modest:  finish.  (I doubt that even qualifies as an ideal.)   When I look at an early draft, I think of the two-headed calf I saw at the Illinois State Fair:  interesting and grotesque.  Pitiable and risible.

Usually (turn away, Reader, if you are squeamish), I just cut one of the heads off and turn the beast into a recognizable animal.   Sometimes the operation isn't a success and the thing dies.  HOWEVER every now and then the monster turns out to be exactly what I didn't know I wanted but is just right for the job.   Or at least I can follow its cloven hooves through the snow and, Look!  A little house with a fireplace where I can fail in comfort.  

So -- many of you from Hamline are home starting a new semester with new advisors.  They'll give everyone time and attention and lots of advice.   My (unsolicited) advice is brief and borrowed from Mr. Beckett:   When what you're working on goes to pieces, try again.  Fail better.

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