On Throwing it into The Fire

Recently I was defeated. I spent a week and a half writing a story. It turned out to be junk. I spent three days trying to fix it, and ultimately came out defeated in the process.

Harry Crews, author of A Feast of Snakes, in an interview–you can watch the clip here:

–stated that he had burned half a novel. “I had taken a wrong turn,” he said. Crews says the amateur, or the coward, takes a wrong turn yet continues, because he or she doesn’t want to do that all over again. The artist, he says, takes the work and throws it into the fire, and does it all over again. I’m paraphrasing, slightly, but yes––how often do we try and take a story or poem we know is sorry and turn it into something, well, less bad? We take our joke amateur piece through about four workshops and by the end we’re left with a turd wrapped in gold aluminum foil.

I have a kind of nine circles of hell on my laptop for my writing. Three circles, really. The semi-occasional polished pieces go into a folder, very lamely titled Stories Turning Out Well. This folder is displayed on my desktop, in the buff before my eyes each day, to give me hope, I assume. Then there is the folder titled, simply, Stories. This is for junk I wrote when I first started, as well as writing exercises I’ve done on my own and in my various workshop classes. The third folder, which lies within the Stories folder, is also called Stories. Yes, it is not a very creative folder name, but consider it a testament to the lack of creativity of the work that gets tossed in there.

My new story is going into that folder. But I guess I’m no Harry Crews. I didn’t hit the delete button; I certainly didn’t burn it in a barrel behind my house like a madman, the way I picture Crews doing it. But as a young writer I like to hang onto my mistakes, so that maybe one day I can look back and read over the bad stuff, perhaps a way of gauging how far I’ve come.

And I guess my point is that young writers, or writers in general, must be willing to accept failure. If we can’t accept failure we’ll destroy our potential as artists.

I spent three days changing every damned sentence of a story that had no potential. After you do that kind of hasty editing, you come out with some creature of a very botched surgery job. Once I had exhausted myself, I couldn’t understand a line of my story. And failure, its liable to make you want to drink yourself to death. I felt the brief gust of melancholy when I realized it was hopeless. But a writing buddy had referred me in the past to the Harry Crews interview. I watched it again, and now the only thing on my mind is the next story.

So when you know its hopeless, just throw it into the fire, and think about the next story or poem. This may seem like a common bit of wisdom, but consider it a reminder. Watch the Crews video. Keep writing, dammit, and don’t be afraid to reject your own work. Because you’re better than that, right?


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