Tag: Ernest Hemingway

Conquer Your Fear of Failure

Adapted from Write Fearlessly!: Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write With Confidence by Jim Denney

“You fail only if you stop writing.”Ray Bradbury

In 1983, Margaret Atwood rented a fisherman’s cottage in the English seacoast village of Blakeney, Norfolk. She planned to spend the next six months writing her most ambitious novel yet — a complex and richly detailed dystopian tale.

Atwood soon realized she was unable to write. The sheer scope of her novel intimidated her. She spent her days bird-watching and her nights reading bad historical novels and nursing chilblains caused by the cold damp weather. She later referred to that time as “six months of futile striving.”

MargaretAtwood
Margaret Atwood at Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, Ontario, Canada, September 2006. Photo: Vanwaffle, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

What was wrong? Why didn’t she write? Answer: She was blocked by fear of failure. Her vision of the novel loomed so large in her mind that she felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. She didn’t know where to begin.

Frustrated with herself for wasting months of valuable writing time, Atwood finally did what every successful writer must do in order to overcome the fear of failure: She wrote. She began producing bits and pieces of the story. She sketched in characters and wrote patches of dialogue. It didn’t all hang together at first, but that didn’t matter. After six months, she was finally writing again.

“I grasped the nettle I had been avoiding,” she later said, “and began to write The Handmaid’s Tale.” That novel later became her most successful and acclaimed work. Her advice to anyone who is paralyzed by the fear of failure: “Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.”1

This was hardly Margaret Atwood’s first novel. She had already enjoyed a fifteen-year, five-novel career when she found herself blocked during The Handmaid’s Tale. So the fear of failure is not restricted to beginning and aspiring writers. Successful novelists often experience this fear as well. Like Margaret Atwood, you can conquer your fear of failure and go on to achieve your greatest work.

Embrace the Sense of Failure

The conquest of this fear begins with acceptance of the inevitability of failure. To write is to know failure. Most writers experience more failure than success, and we all strive to achieve a level of perfection that is probably unattainable.

Irish novelist Anne Enright describes a frustration most writers have felt — that of always aspiring to an artistic goal that is just beyond our reach: “I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough, you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, and refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.”2

WillSelf
Will Self at the Humber Mouth literary festival in Hull, England, 2007. Photo: Walnut Whippet, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

And English novelist Will Self said, “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail. The disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. . . . I prize this sense of failure — embrace it even. . . . To continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience.”3 As writers, we accept the inevitability of commercial failure, artistic failure, and even failed relationships.

One True Sentence

The fear of failure afflicts many writers soon after the publication of their first book. The writer thinks, “I fooled ’em once, but can I fool ’em again? What if I only have one book in me? What if I have no encore?”

Suspense writer James L. Rubart, author of Rooms and Book of Days, recalls that after his first book was well-received by critics and readers, he worried that it was a fluke — and that his second novel might not measure up. “The response to Rooms was so strong that I was definitely nervous when Book of Days came out. That whole ‘I only have one book in me’ thing. But a lot of people liked Book of Days better.”

In fact, Rubart says, his mastery of the writing craft increased in demonstrable ways with each new novel. “It took me six years to write Rooms,” he recalls, “two years to write Book of Days, five months to write The Chair, ten weeks to write Soul’s Gate . . . and I’m on pace to finish the novel I’m working on right now in six weeks.”4Free Ebook Button SmallWendell Berry is a farmer, antiwar activist, novelist, and poet. He remembers the sense of unease he felt after his first book was published. He has learned to embrace that uneasy feeling and to anticipate the unknown adventures ahead. “I am discomforted,” he says, “by the knowledge that I don’t know how to write the books that I have not yet written. But that discomfort has an excitement about it, and it is the necessary antecedent of one of the best kinds of happiness.”5

hemingway1939
Ernest Hemingway, 1939

In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway recalled the twinge of self-doubt he felt as he contemplated a new story:

I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say.6

Don’t fear that you have no more stories or books in you. You have barely scratched the surface of all the stories your soul contains. Over time, you have learned and grown as a writer. Relax in the confidence and mastery you have gained from that achievement — and prepare to conquer even greater challenges in the future. Trust your  unconscious mind, your talent, your training, and your experience. Then sit down in front of your screen or your blank page and write the truest sentence you know.

Fail Early, Fail Often

Web writer Diogenes Brito says that he wrestles with a number of fears every time he sets out to write — fear of the blank page, fear of the unknown, fear of being judged, and fear of losing control. But one fear that no longer troubles him is the fear of failure. Brito says he overcame that fear thanks to one of his university professors:

When I was in Stanford’s design program, a professor named Dave Beach had everyone raise jazz hands to the sky. He then instructed us to jump and cheer, “I failed!” I have never forgotten that moment. “Fail early, fail often” was the mantra. The goal was to build up an immunity to failure, so that fear of it would never hold you back. Like [computer scientist] Dick Karpinski says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly — at first.” I remember that, and it keeps me from freezing up. The enemy of creativity is fear, so I keep going, no matter what.7

If you live by the maxim, “Fail early, fail often,” you can write without fear of failure. Train yourself to view failure not as an objective reality but as a false label people impose on a learning experience. Instead of telling yourself, “How horrible — I’ve failed,” simply shrug and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Lesson learned. What should I try next?” Make up your mind to learn from your failures and you’ll stop being afraid.

_________________

  1. Margaret Atwood, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
  2. Anne Enright, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
  3. Will Self, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
  4. James Rubert, “Focus On Freedom: Q&A with Author James Rubert,” SimplyFaithful.com, July 30, 2012, http://simplyfaithful.com/2012/07/30/focus-on-freedom-qa-with-author-james-rubart/.
  5. Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1985), 3.
  6. Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (New York: Scribner, 2009), 22.
  7. Diogenes Brito, “Fear of the Blank Page,” Uxdiogenes.com, March 10, 2013, http://uxdiogenes.com/blog/fear-of-the-blank-page.

 

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550

     

Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

 

 

Writing Without Rules

 

Hemingway1939
Hemingway in 1939

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” 
—Ernest Hemingway

Many writers obsess about the so-called “rules” of writing. They ask: “What are the rules? What if I’m breaking the rules and don’t know it? What does ‘Show, don’t tell’ mean? What does ‘Write what you know’ mean? How can I get published if I don’t know the rules?”

In my humble opinion, there are only a few “rules of writing” that are so fundamental and universal they truly deserve to be called “rules.” These are the commonsense commandments you must obey or you’re not a writer: “Read every day.” “Maintain a consistent writing schedule.” “Write whether you feel ‘inspired’ or not.” “Finish what you start.” “Never give up.” “Never be boring.”

Any other so-called “rules” are not rules at all. They should be called “principles.” A principle is a general guide to behavior that has proven useful in most situations. There have probably been times when you’ve said, “That’s a good principle, but it doesn’t apply to this situation.” Many people feel anxious at the thought of “breaking” rules. But if we would think of the “general principles of writing” instead of the “rules of writing,” we could relax and be more creative and uninhibited.

Screenwriter Robert McKee put it this way: “Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works . . . and has through all remembered time.’ The difference is crucial. . . . Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”

Science fiction writer Will Shetterly (Dogland), agrees: “There are no rules in writing. There are useful principles. Throw them away when they’re not useful. But always know what you’re throwing away.”

Free Ebook Button Small

Leonard Bishop, in Dare to Be a Great Writer, suggests that, instead of feeling anxious or hesitant about breaking rules, we should sin boldly. He writes:

If you break a “writing rule,” make it noticeable. Exploit your infraction until your personal technique becomes another rule. . . .

A popular rule is “Don’t tell it, show it!” Yet, if you have a scene with ten people who are important and you cannot devise a way to bring them all into action, then tell [about] them — and keep on telling. . . . Offer them, one at a time, as though introducing the cast of a play. Narrate them, describe them, document them, use exposition to reveal their relationships to one another — until the information is down. Tell it all — interestingly. A writer should be bold, versatile, inventive, imaginative, rebellious.

Do not break any rules at the beginning of a novel. It is advisable to allow the reader to get used to your manner of writing before you astonish them with your daring attitudes. (This is not a rule: it is a suggestion.)

EBWhite-Color2
E.B. White with his dog Minnie

E. B. White (The Elements of Style and Charlotte’s Web) observed, “There is . . . no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

Novelist Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) said, “Rules such as ‘Write what you know,’ and ‘Show, don’t tell,’ while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.”

Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write, makes the case that a writer’s success depends far more on passion and conviction than on following any set of writing “rules”:

The more I read and write, the more convinced I am that writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers’ attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, “You’ve got to listen to what I am about to tell you.” It’s hard to be passionate. It means you must put your whole poke on the table. Yet this very go-for-broke quality grabs and holds a reader far more surely than any mastery of technique.

Fantasy master Neil Gaiman offers his own eight rules of writing. His first rule is so basic he expressed it in a single word: “Write.” Most of his other rules are less concise but equally basic: “Finish what you’re writing” and “Fix it.” His eighth and final rule is my favorite, because it repeals all other so-called “rules”—

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

Forget “rules.” Master the principles and follow them when they help you, abandon them when they hold you back. Relax and enjoy the creative process. Write with joy!

For more insight into how to write freely, powerfully, confidently, without inhibition, read my books for writers. Learn to tap into the incredibly powerful source of creative inspiration, “the Muse” or unconscious mind.

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550

     

Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

Fiction is a Different Kind of Truth

Free Ebook Button Small

“All good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened.”
—Ernest Hemingway

I’m a big fan of Lawrence Block and Stephen King, but there’s something these two fine writers say that sets my teeth on edge: They call fiction a “lie.”

Block has written a number of excellent books for writers, including Telling Lies for Fun & Profit (1981) and The Liar’s Bible (2011). (Despite the titles, I highly recommend them.) In Danse Macabre, Stephen King said, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Clearly, King’s focus is on the truth, not the lie, because he goes on to say, “Morality is telling the truth as your heart knows it.”

Neil Gaiman once made a similar remark: “Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent.” Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, said, “Writing fiction is the act of weaving a series of lies to arrive at a greater truth.” And Kurt Vonnegut, in the preface to Mother Night, said, “Lies told for the sake of artistic effect … can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.” And William Gibson (Neuromancer) writes, “The most common human act that writing a novel resembles is lying. The working novelist lies daily, very complexly, and at great length.”

Why would any practitioner of the art of fiction slander his art by calling it a “lie”? Granted, fiction is an account of events that didn’t actually happen — but does the nonfactual nature of fiction make it a “lie”?

The dictionary definition of a lie is “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive.” Fiction does not try to deceive anyone. The reader knows a novel or story is not a factual account, and approaches it in a state of (as Coleridge termed it) “willing suspension of disbelief.” Without intent to deceive, there is no lie.

Equating fiction to a lie is like equating surgery to a back-alley stabbing. After all, the surgeon cuts you open with a knife and takes your money. Isn’t that exactly what a mugger with a switchblade does? Well, no — the two acts are not even remotely similar.

The point is this: I have a high opinion of stories and the people who write them — and I have contempt for lies and the people who tell them. I’ve been lied to by people who tried to deceive me, manipulate me, or steal from me, and I bitterly resent it. But I love being entertained by a good story.

“The basis of art is truth, both in matter and in mode,” said Flannery O’Connor. “The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth.” Great fiction can’t lie. Fiction, in order to function as entertainment, must be true. Sure, the reader knows it isn’t factually true — but the reader expects it to be true in a deeper way. As novelist Emma Donoghue has said, “Stories are a different kind of true.”

Orson Scott Card’s short story “Lost Boys” first appeared in the October 1989 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Though the first-person protagonist of the story is named Step Fletcher, many aspects of Card’s own life are woven in the story. Card himself didn’t realize how much of his own personal truth, including his emotional pain, was woven into that work of fiction until some months after he had written it.

Much of the pain of that story centered on his son, Charlie Ben, who was severely afflicted with cerebral palsy (and who died more than a decade after the story was published). At the time he wrote the story, Card thought he was writing a simple ghost story featuring a fictional boy named Scotty. Instead, he had inadvertently told the truth about his repressed grief over his real-life son, Charlie Ben. In an afterword appended to the story for its initial publication, Card reflected:

In all the years of Charlie’s life … I had never shed a single tear for him, never allowed myself to grieve. I had worn a mask of calm and acceptance so convincing that I had believed it myself. But the lies we live will always be confessed in the stories that we tell, and I am no exception. The story that I had fancied was a mere lark, a dalliance in the quaint old ghost-story tradition, was the most personal, painful story of my career — and, unconsciously, I had confessed as much by making it by far the most autobiographical of all my works.

Great writers don’t lie — they reveal the truth through fiction (often, without realizing it). Their stories are morally, emotionally, humanly true. Great fiction is convincing. It touches a responsive chord of truth within our souls. Fiction must resonate with eternal and universal truths, or the reader will throw the book away in disgust.

When you write a story, do you think you’re lying? Do you think you’re deceiving anyone? If so, stop writing. But if you are writing your truth, write on!

Don’t lie to me. Tell me the truth. Tell me a story.

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550     MuseOfFire-Medium350x550

Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

And for a 90-day supply of inspirational, motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers. He’s the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).