Failure: Strength and Writing

These are my Notes on Failure ? for Bhanu Kapil this week.

Before I started writing there was an idea, a memory. An area of Prospect Park in Brooklyn called Rick’s Place. This is where male prostitutes bring their costumers. The ground is littered with condoms and condom wrappers. My memory is of a boy, a teenager with full lips and deep eyes leading an older man into Rick’s Place passing me and my friend and saying, hello. ?

I start the writing with the teen leaving Rick’s Place alone. I write several paragraphs. He passes two Brooklyn teens with foul mouths. They taunt him. There is a conflict. I extract another memory of a fight among high school students on the subway. There is a moment of love and hate, peace and violence. Then the conflict is resolved. This is where I get stuck. The writing fails.

In my daily writing practice these moments come frequently. In this case, three people stood around a bench in Prospect Park. Something had just happened but I didn’t know what would happen next.

I turned away from the computer screen and spoke to the person sitting across from me. It was a brief exchange. I made a joke about failure using the metaphor of a crashing plane, the kind of hideous metaphor that makes it into everyday language in order to desensitize us to the violence of modern life.

I return to the computer screen and make the metaphor real. A burning plane cuts the sky above Prospect Park. The characters respond. I keep writing.

This is an organic process. In the body, bone cells grow along stress lines so our bones are strengthened in the very places that are put under the most stress. The bones of an athlete are different from the bones of someone who is less active or active in different ways.

Failure strengthens writing in the very places that most need strengthening. When I get stuck as a writer I have to take the writing in a new direction, using outside stimulation or new memories or bits of imagination. The twists, turns, and sudden drops that result from moments of failure ? are the very aspects of my writing that hold the most energy.

Understanding failure is an important part of engineering and architecture. Different building materials fail in different ways and handle stress differently. Reinforced concrete is very strong under compressive forces but is weak under tension. Wood is able to take compressive forces and tensile forces, but most of its strength is realized when forces are applied at a certain angle to the grain. Steel handles compressive and tensile forces equally no matter the angle of application. But when steel is formed into I-beams its strength is maximized in specific directions.

Before we can notice and understand failure in writing we need to understand what success means. What does successful writing look like? What does it do? A quote I return to over and over again by Dostoyevsky is that the purpose of literature is to remind us that we are alive. Successful writing reminds the reader that she is alive. Stories are also tools for living, as Kenneth Burke said. Successful writing empowers the reader and equips them with tools with which they can fashion their world.

If you want to discover the structural weaknesses of a building, burn it. The charred remains of beams and columns will highlight strengths. There are fire techniques that destroy ? the text either by removing essential elements or creating extraneous elements.

Keith Abbott has suggested keeping character files of monologues for characters when a writer is stuck. The monologues may never be used in a story but will reveal traits that the writer can use to give characters more depth. Keith has also suggested closely examining dialogue for individual characters in a story, making sure each word fits with that characters voice.

Another useful tool I learned from Keith is to investigate best case/worse case ? scenarios. When I’m not sure what is going to happen next in a story I ask myself two questions: What is the best thing that could happen to these characters at this moment? ? and What is the worse thing that could happen at this moment? ? I will write both scenarios. What makes it into the story is something that uses elements of each.

From Massive Change by Bruce Mau:

When systems fail we become temporarily conscious of the extraordinary force and power of design, and the effects it generates. Every accident provides a brief moment of awareness of real life, what is actually happening, and our dependence on the underlying systems of design. ?

Failure in writing is an opportunity (and perhaps the ONLY opportunity) for me to learn more about my writing. The times when all the words are flowing and I feel inspired are wonderful and generate some good writing. But it is the moments of failure, the in-between (as Elizabeth Grosz discusses) spaces where I am open. Paradoxically, in these in-between moments I often feel stuck, when actually I am finally becoming.

Noticing the failures in my writing is how I begin to answer these questions. What are the strengths of my writing? Is my writing strongest under tension or compression? How can I shape the material of my writing to maximize the strengths?

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