Sunday, June 04, 2006


So I was sitting in the audience watching Francois and the Eastside Class of 2006 graduate and I was thinking about advice. Especially during the speeches given by members of the graduating class. These speeches had the ingredients one would expect: hope for great accomplishments in the future, pride at the accomplishments of the past, a gung-ho attitude. Sprinkled with advice on dealing with college and the job market. And so I started think about what I would have wanted as advice as a graduating high school senior (I can't really remember what advice was given out back then--it was, after all, 20 years ago).

The term "permission to fail, sir," kept running through my head.

Then, this morning, I read this reprint of something Kelly Link just wrote, and that same phrase came back into my head: "permission to fail."

Yeah, that's what I would have liked coming out of high school. I would have liked permission to fail. In fact, I think it's great advice for writers in general, sometimes even more for intermediate writers who have gained a certain level of success and public praise.

I would have said to those high school students: Whatever you do from now on, don't feel that it has to always be successful. To be successful, to be as good as you can possibly be in whatever field you choose, you need to have permission to fail. You have to feel like you can bungee jump out to the edge of success and into that space where the ropes might break. If you don't, you won't take risks, you won't get out there, to that area with a night sky full of unfamiliar stars where "success" might become either something extraordinary or utter failure. Because utter failure and extraordinary accomplishment are conjoined twins much of the time.

Or, put another way, the space between a "publishable" story or novel and a "good" story or novel can be a chasm.

Sometimes you might not have the skill or mastery of technique to pull off certain effects. You might be of a more cautious temperament than other writers so it might take you longer. But that doesn't mean you can't get there. I can only go by reader and reviewer response, but every single time I've had the patience to train myself to go over the edge into someplace initially terrifying, I've provided people with a read that draws them in, that brings them a unique experience.

One of the things I always loved about Angela Carter was her fearlessness. I think she always gave herself permission to fail, and she didn't care. She wouldn't have cared if she'd written ten failed stories that she'd never get published if that got her to a place where she'd be able to write one truly extraordinary piece that no one else could possibly have written. Lack of nerve is often the only thing separating talent from its full potential.

I think in part, having nerve or daring is a matter of not limiting your options. (That mad stray thought you immediately put out of your head; that typo that has all kinds of psychological complications that you correct instead of riffing off of.) Of not pre-editing yourself into not writing a particular story because you don't think you can pull it off. Of not shying away when it comes to putting in painful or personal things into your stories. Of not shying away from the true implications of your scenes and situations. You know when you're censoring yourself, when you're not willing to go to the places necessary to make a story truly complete or perfect. It's the kind of "niceness" that makes so many Hollywood movies that start out well end so poorly--the endings don't do justice to the set-up.

So it's not just a matter of using more daring technique--most definitely not. It's about seeing how far you can go in so many different ways. It's testing your stories and novels by asking yourself--is that what would have really happened? Might it have gone even farther if you'd let it? It's about giving yourself over to the characters and storyline so that even if you have to write something uncomfortable, you still do it. And all the while, not thinking about the fact that you might fail, might completely fuck it up. Not worrying about your readers or reviewers or anything other than the story.

There's a true freedom and release to doing so. And I think it can get you to a space where something truly unique and ambitious comes through. It can also break you of patterns and predictability.



At 6:31 PM, Blogger ccfinlay said...

Hey, Jeff,

That's an excellent point -- taking risk necessarily implies accepting the possibility of failure, otherwise it's not risk. And yet we often forget to acknowledge that that's okay.

Thanks for the riff.


At 4:12 PM, Anonymous Clare said...

Thanks Jeff - your advice makes me uncomfortable, but sometimes that's exactly what I need.


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