After the last post, I started thinking about the whole concept of failure. In particular, I thought of the concept of the ‘failure state’ that is a staple of videogames.
The ‘failure state’ probably has its best-known implementation in the ‘game over’ screen – you get hit X amount of times and the game is ‘over’. In the old days, you restarted from your last checkpoint (in the oldest of old days, you started right back at the beginning of the game), and your progress was set back to that point. Now we have not only save points, but quicksaves, and checkpoints, and the option for mulitple save files. But the concept of a failure state remains the same. It provides a consequence for not doing things properly, immediate feedback so that you know what you’re doing wrong, so that you are less inclined to do it again, and in this way, the game ‘trains’ you to play it properly – ‘properly’ just meaning ‘the way the game designers want you to play.’
There are issues with this, of course. For one, it suggests that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to perform certain tasks or complete certain objectives, sometimes only one ‘right’ way and every other way will be wrong, and that rubs some people the wrong way. Others don’t mind so much how they’re supposed to do it, so long as it’s straightforward and makes sense with what they’ve learnt about how the game works and expects them to work, rewarding their learning up to that point. But then there’s the issue of how the game itself is designed; if you’re meant to clear a level by getting a headshot on the Zombie Boss while also in the middle of a brutal melee with said Boss’ minions, who you have to also defend yourself from, and you’re playing with a console controller with no auto-lock-on, and your character’s aiming reticule keeps moving because of ‘realism’ and there is no ‘hold breath’ mechanic or whatever to steady your aim, well, there’s a reason first-person shooters aren’t that fun to play on consoles, or even games that, while not necessarily shooting-based, still make you rely on the mechanic. That’s bad game design getting in your way, and the failure state doesn’t ‘teach’ you anything when you fail because of it, other than that this game is designed really badly for the platform it’s been made for.
My point is that ‘failure’ is only a useful learning tool if it’s implemented fairly, and the only criteria for success or failure is based solely on your skill and understanding of how the given system operates, and not obfuscated by that system’s own internal inconsistencies. Otherwise you’re being punished for something that isn’t your fault.
And when you apply this to the real world, we’re constantly being assigned blame for failing at things we didn’t even know we could get wrong, being seen as not good enough when the actual problem doesn’t lie with us or our capabilites at all.
It is for this reason that I don’t like the concept of failure, in a general sense. Going back to the videogame example, if you happen to get a game that is, miraculously, so clean and well-designed that the only possible way you can ‘fail’ is if you misunderstand or wrongly assume something about the game, when you have been given reasonable opportunities to understand how the system works, then I’m okay with the idea of failure, and even then, only failure insofar as it is a teaching mechanism. I actually see it less as failure, though, and more as feedback – you were supposed to do X in order to progress (and the game gave you adequate time to accustom yourself to the system so that you should reasonably be expected to understand that by now, via tutorials/repeated reliance on the same mechanics, etc.), but you did Y instead, and as a result you are given feedback to tell you that doing Y does not work, and it becomes a process of elimination (and, depending on how far the game sets you back, memory). Anything else is the game’s fault, and the game ‘fails’ to uphold its end of the learning process (and being enjoyable, which is the foremost duty of any game).
When it comes to any self-directed artistic pursuit, such as writing a novel, the idea of failure just seems utterly inappropriate to me, and for one simple reason: the idea of failure in this context doesn’t teach you anything, because unlike a videogame, there are no limited number of ways in which X thing can be accomplished. You can write a novel by typing one letter every day until it’s finished. You can write a novel by writing stream-of-consciousness for a month and not caring what the ‘quality’ of what you’re producing is. You can write a novel by dictating to a voice-to-text program of some kind, or by spending 17 years meticulously planning every single tiny detail you want to implement before you even begin the first draft, or by stitching it into pair of jeans (probably a very large pair of jeans). You can do it in whatever way works for you.
Then there’s the other part, where there is ‘not getting it to work’, and I think that’s very different to failure. Failing at something suggests, again, that there was a right way and a wrong way to have done it; perhaps more than one of each, but still working within the categories of correct and incorrect. Which I think is incorrect. ‘Not getting it to work’, on the other hand, is utterly devoid of judgment; it’s simply a statement of an outcome, and that teaches you something. But what tends to happen – and it’s happened to me, time and time again, until last night I finally broke through after, what, 13 years of Being a Writer – is that when we don’t get something to work the way we intended, we interpret it as a ‘failure’. And just like with a videogame, when we hit that failure state, we come to a stop. But what makes the artistic failure state all the worse is that, while losing a videogame can be frustrating, there is rarely any doubt as to why the failure happened, whereas with something as subjective and personal as the process of writing a novel, doubt is pretty much the definition of why it sucks so much, the question of ‘what am I supposed to do?’
And that is the trap; that is what locks us up, because we’re treating the situation as we’ve learnt to treat all situations: as one of pass-or-fail, in which there are right answers and wrong answers. Whereas the reality is that there are only ways in which you get the thing done, and ways in which you don’t – the operative word here being ‘you’.
Because there is no system at play here, other than how you operate. Some people don’t know how they operate in some areas, and that’s where doubt sets in. That’s why people turn to – and continue to produce – How To guides on writing, for example, why Rules of Writing exist: to clarify the unknown, to put boundaries on it, but by establishing some rules, other rules are de-legitimised, at least in the eyes of those who treat these rules literally. Not everybody does, and the reason for that is that they recognise that these ‘rules’ do work – for some people. For others, they are useless at best, and destructive to their sense of confidence and competence at worst, because they provide the framework for a failure state – this is the system, and you don’t operate well within it, so you fail. That’s the logic that taking Rules of Writing literally entails.
Rules of Writing, again, do work – for some people. If somebody reads a book on how to write and it works for them, fantastic! Good for them! They have found a way in which they ‘get it to work’. But if you’re not one of those people, I urge you to not invest in the idea of success and failure by means of following instructions about something that is so personal and so varied, and instead to look at ‘getting it to work’.
Thomas Edison is quotes as having said: ‘I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.’ And that is what I’m talking about here. It’s not about failing or succeeding; it’s about ‘making it work’. And when it comes to writing – or anything else creative and personal – the concept of failure fails us as a teacher. The only way I know how to actually grow as a writer is to instead look at it all as a learning process, to learn that beating your head against a wall is not failure – it’s acknowledgement, if you take a step back. It’s discovery. It’s learning that this method does not work for what you’re trying to achieve, and to stop doing it – and to move on, and do something else. To let go, and keep going. You have learnt something; you have gained something. You have ticked one more thing off the list of questions that lead to the answer of ‘how it works’ – for you.
I am partly writing this because now that I’m supposed to write this Master List of beta feedback, I really don’t want to, and it’s reminding me of what I just went through to get to something that worked for writing out the synopses I wanted of draft 1, so that I could use them as a platform from which to organise a plan for draft 2. Zooming-in did not work, and was actually physically agonising. So what I think I’ll do instead is summarise each reader’s feedback, and then compare those summaries in order to identify common problems (and things that people liked), and then turn that into a list. The Big Picture seems to be the focus that’s working for me right now, so I’ll keep doing it.
But the other reason I wrote this is simply so that I can remember it – and, hopefully, so that it might help somebody else if they’re struggling with trying to ‘get it right’. You can’t get it right. But you can get it to work.
And with something as personal as your own writing, that’s not just the best you can hope for; it’s just the best. Period.