Now there’ll be those folks whose response is: ‘Well, I don’t need you to tell me that all that stuff’s a failure, Mr Ruckley. I’ve read some of it!’ To them I say: ‘That’s mean.’ But also: ‘You might be right, but I’m talking about something else anyway.’ And: ‘Thanks for calling me ‘Mr. Ruckley’, by the way. That’s unexpectedly and unnecessarily polite of you.’
I was re-reading bits of one of the most interesting comics ever published the other day. It’s called Understanding Comics, and it’s by Scott McCloud. It’s a book about comics in the form of a comic, and for those of us who like the comics medium, reading it can be a bit like having a light going on your head. It’s a textbook, a manifesto, a meditation, an analysis, a history. It explains a lot of what makes comics remarkable and different, and a lot about how they work. If you like comics and haven’t read it, I prescribe an immediate trip to the library or bookstore to see if you can get your hands on it. It’s called Understanding Comics and it really can change the way you understand comics.
But that’s beside the point. There’s a lot of Understanding Comics that’s of relevance to any kind of creator, not just those making comics. What struck me in particular was one statement in the book, and how I might spin it into something worth saying to aspiring writers:
Ask any writer or filmmaker or painter just how much of a given project truly represents what they envisioned it to be. You’ll hear twenty per cent … ten … five … few will claim more than thirty.
That right there is, I think, both profoundly right and perhaps just a wee bit wrong. I’ve written one or two short stories for which I’d probably claim a bit more than 30% accurate representation of what was in my head. You can argue about the merit of what was in my head, of course, but for better or worse what ended up on the page was at least halfway there. I’ve got a feeling there are not a few creators of one sort or another around who’d happily claim over 30% for their stuff.
But broadly speaking? Sure, writing fiction is a tremendously disappointing process. A lot of it is about trying to manage and minimise your own failure in conveying the visions, the ideas, the themes, the sheer wonder that’s sitting right there in your head. Any writer who has high aspirations for their output – I don’t mean financial aspirations, so much as those relating to craft, art or communication – should probably try to get their head around that fact.
Because it’s not a bad thing. It’s not actually about disappointment or failure. It’s just a recognition that all those involved in the creative arts are, in some sense, attempting the flat-out impossible. As Scott McCloud says:
Media convert thoughts into forms that can traverse the physical world and be re-converted by one or more senses back into thoughts.
That right there is a next to impossible ask. Information, sensation, precision, texture is all going to be lost in the process of converting intangible, unbounded mental processes in one unique mind into limited, defined words. It is next to impossible to create a full, precise, unambiguous verbal representation of the infinite complexity of what is happening in your head. And however much of it you do manage to get down on paper is then going to be re-converted into mind-stuff by the reader. Frankly, it’s a miracle we manage to make this whole thing work as well as we do.
None of us, except perhaps I suppose a theoretically possible but improbably lucky few, will ever achieve 100% successful transcription of the magnificence inside our heads. We will fail. In some part, we will fail every single time we sit down to write. I know I have. McCloud again:
The mastery of one’s medium is the degree to which that percentage can be increased, the degree to which the artist’s ideas survive the journey …
And that’s what I’ve got to offer for aspiring writers: You are going to fail. You will never quite reproduce the wonders in your head on the page. Failure is not something to fear, or get hung up about. It’s an inherent part of the process. Pretty much everybody else is failing as well, whether they admit it or not. Your mission (My mission!), should you choose to accept it, is to aspire to fail less. To narrow the margins between what’s inside your head and what’s on the page.
Chances are, you’ll never hit that 100% mark, but there’s a wonderful thing about writing (and, I assume all the other creative arts and crafts): the more you practise, the more you do it, the closer you get. Your percentage will increase, and all you have to do to make that happen is to keep writing, and to take seriously the business of trying to write better.
Believe me, every few ticks upward in that percentage don’t feel anything remotely like failure or disappointment. They feel like gradual, immensely satisfying, success.
P.S. Yes, this post too is a failure. It was brilliant when I first thought of it. One of the best blog posts ever. Not so much now, huh? But it’s fine. Onwards and upwards!