Failure is My Business

I love Raymond Chandler. His writing is my favorite kind of beautiful. From drunken descriptions like, “I smiled at him. He smiled back. Hawkins smiled at me. I smiled back. Everybody was swell.” to the revelation of complex emotions in the most cynical way possible (“I hoped she was paying her own rent. It didn’t make any difference to me–I just liked it better that way.”). I could spend a whole day talking about Raymond Chandler and not feel like I wasted a second of it.

Right now, I’m stuck in the worst stalled revision of Halo (a.k.a. How to Kill Yourself in a Small Town) that I’ve ever been in. I spend most of my day marinating in thoughts like, “I should roll it back a draft and say, ‘Screw it. It is what it is.’ I should throw this story away and work on something else. I hate this story. I love this story. Why does it hate me?”

I don’t want to give up. I know I’m on the edge of something good. If I can just finish this revision without killing myself, all the plot holes will close up–I just know it–but working on it feels like trying to pull teeth from somebody much bigger and less sedated than me.

So, how do you make yourself keep going? No, seriously, I’m asking. Not having any idea is almost as frustrating as not wanting to work on this revision when I’m so close to the end.

Whenever I don’t know what to do about something (anything, really, not just writing), I default back to reading. All of my favorite books and stories, the things that made me want to write in the first place, things I’ve never read before that people have said I should, classics, trash, articles, research, whatever. I still haven’t found any answers, but I did find something encouraging in the introduction Raymond Chandler wrote to Trouble is My Business.

“As I look back on my stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better. But if they had been much better they would not have been published. […] There are things in my stories which I might like to change or leave out all together. To do this may look simple, but if you try, you will find you cannot do it at all. You will only destroy what is good without having any noticeable effect on what is bad. You cannot recapture the mood, the state of innocence, much less the animal gusto you had when you had very little else. Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.”

Okay, I realize that to some people this might read like Ecclesiastes, where nothing under the sun is new and everything is futility and death. But guess who has two thumbs and also finds Ecclesiastes encouraging?  There’s just something about knowing you can never do as well as you hope to do that makes me feel good about being alive. Like, if I’m going to fail anyway, then I’d like to fail as spectacularly as possible and have fun while doing it.

At another point in his introduction, Chandler says, “As a writer I have never been able to take myself with that enormous earnestness which is one of the trying characteristics of the craft.” That’s probably the best thing any writer can shoot for–not to take themselves too seriously since we’re all going to fail anyway. And if somebody other than me enjoys the end products of my failure, I’ll be happy. I just have to get to that end product.

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