The Dark Side of Being a Writer

Mad RabbitsIt’s the hidden underside of writing that most writers don’t talk about. None of us relish thinking about it. And all of us wish we never had to deal with it at all. But it’s the shadowy truth that every working writer comes up against at some point in his or her career.

To write something truly great, you have to write a lot of things that suck first.

This might be the hardest part of being a writer. Because we don’t just write things that suck during our first six months of writing. We usually write them for the first few years of writing. And even after decades of writing, and many published works, even the most successful writers still occasionally write something that just doesn’t pan out.

Writing stories that fail is a part of writing that no writer can avoid.

Sometimes it’s a short story that goes nowhere and fizzles out in a sad little heap of dead characters. Sometimes it’s a novel that makes it to completion but ends up passing the rest of its days buried in a box in the attic. Many times it’s an honestly brilliant idea that loses its fire before it even makes it down onto the page.

These failed and buried, dead-end, fizzled-out attempts are all part of the package every writer signs up for when they commit to following the writer’s path. It’s not pretty. And it’s always discouraging when we realize that the story we’re working with just isn’t going to work.

Experienced writers know not to take failure personally.

Failed writing attempts have nothing to do with your talent or your potential as a writer. It’s just something that happens along the way, and it happens to everyone. And it doesn’t even just happen to writers. Anyone who has ever wanted to be really great at something has gone through their fair share of disappointments and failed attempts. Great surgeons have lost patients. Great inventors have accidentally blown up stuff.

To be truly great, you must fail doing the thing you love again and again.

What separates the great writers from the rest is that great writers keep trying. They learn what they can from the failed attempt and move on. They keep moving forward, even if the movement is gut-wrenchingly slow and painful.

Your failed attempts at writing are incredibly helpful to your growth as a writer. What’s not helpful is misreading the message of a failed attempt and using it as evidence for why you should give up altogether. To get anywhere, we have to fail first.

So if you’re showing up and actually doing the writing on a regular basis but you still feel like you’re “failing” it’s time to reevaluate your definitions. It’s not about results. It’s about process.

It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.

It’s time to stop and look around at your own journey. Appreciate where you are and be grateful for it. Your failed attempts are evidence of how committed you are to the road.

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11 Comments

  • Reply Sharon Rawlette 31 March, 2014 at 10:26 am

    How absolutely true!

  • Reply Phillip McCollum 31 March, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    You hit every point perfectly, Lauren. I’m convinced that writing is so difficult because it punches the ego right in the gut. Most of us came to write because we love to read, but just as listening to a lot of music doesn’t make one a musician, reading a lot doesn’t make us writers. It’s a hard pill to swallow and only those who with the desire to stick with it and willingness to get back up after being knocked down will succeed.

  • Reply Catherine North 31 March, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    This is so true! Now I’ve gained some distance, I quite enjoy re-reading my first few novels. They suck horribly, but they remind me how far I’ve progressed since then.

  • Reply Ty Viner 31 March, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    This post was perfectly timed. It’s just about exactly what I needed. Thanks. 🙂

  • Reply Marie Ann Bailey 1 April, 2014 at 4:47 am

    My favorite line from your post: “To write something truly great, you have to write a lot of things that suck first.” How true that is! Excellent post, Lauren. I appreciate the reminder that writing is a struggle, that sometimes you have to fail before you can succeed. And that you should never give up 🙂

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 1 April, 2014 at 8:12 am

    I think I might be facing my shadowy truth right now with my first attempt at a novel. Of course, I knew this would happen but, as of yet, I can’t let go of it. Therefore, I keep on reworking it, hoping I hit on something that will make it worthwhile.

  • Reply Vy Chazen 1 April, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    Thanks for the inspiration Lauren! You’re the best!

  • Reply Jon Simmonds 3 April, 2014 at 4:01 am

    The failure part is often made all the worse by the fact that, as ‘creatives’, we writers tend to be more affected by our emotions and less thick-skinned than others. Not to make us sound like an ethereal breed apart, but you know what I mean, I hope. We then end up in that pit of despair you posted about recently. I think that’s why it’s important for writers (or artists of any ilk) to have a good support network of people who understand the ups-and-downs and can give us a good kick in the backside when we start wallowing.

    Oh, and a short story that ends “in a sad little heap of dead characters” actually sounds like one that I’d LIKE to read!! 😀

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 3 April, 2014 at 8:51 am

      I totally know what you mean Jon. We may not be “an ethereal breed apart” but we are a pretty intense and passionate bunch!

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 4 April, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    I cling to the finding that successful people have a lot more failures in life than unsuccessful people.

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