Failure, a Re-Vision
October 22, 2019 § 21 Comments
When I submitted my master’s thesis in 2011, for creative nonfiction, my advisor returned it with only one line of feedback:
“Be more reflective.”
She didn’t explain what she meant, didn’t offer advice, didn’t bother telling me what, if anything, was working in my 130 pages. The only thing she indicated was that I needed to start over and change everything, including my voice. Her disdain for my writing felt like disdain for me as a person.
My tennis coach once told me, “You have to allow yourself to fail. It’s the only way to improve.” This, ironically, was the subject of my thesis and a lesson I’d grappled with on and off the tennis courts for years—losing relationships, losing my job—but failure here seemed worse; writing, unlike tennis, was my skill, my sanctuary from my other failures, and now, suddenly, this too was inferior.
So I stopped writing. My classmates graduated, and I enjoyed the New England summer. The only writing I did was in my journal, which I kept by hand, refusing to open my laptop for months.
Then one day, for no real reason, I began writing an essay that became the foundation for a collection of personal essays that were, in essence, a revision of my original work. One year after sending my advisor the first draft of my thesis, I mailed her my second.
I went into our meeting with dread, a bundle of Kleenex in my pocket.
“This is an improvement,” she said.
“Really?” I said, with such astonishment she was taken aback.
“Yes. It’s much different from the first.” She told me I showed insight, made connections, and sometimes the writing was funny, where it didn’t fall flat. After a few minutes of discussion, she tilted her head. “You seem to have lost all confidence in yourself as a writer. Why is that?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but couldn’t. Even now, I have moments in which I feel as if I’m sitting in her office, my sense of worth as a writer completely diminished, trying to pretend her opinion of my work didn’t matter. Through my thesis I learned to abandon what comes naturally, to guess what my literary audience is looking for, and to mold my voice to fit that model. It’s the opposite of good practice.
Then, four years ago, I participated in a writing workshop in Greece, led by a travel writer and poet. One woman in our group submitted a poem that was so terrible I thought a third grader had written it. Trite, rhyming, shallow—even I knew this was a disaster. How will our workshop leader handle this? I wondered. Would he say what all of us were thinking?
Instead, without a trace of disingenuousness, he found magic within her work. He pointed to its depth, gave it value, and offered helpful—not overwhelming—suggestions. My friend and I looked at each other, stunned. “The man has a gift,” he whispered.
Two weeks later, on our last night in Greece, this woman presented her poem at the final reading. It was the most memorable piece of the night because I never expected such a transformation. The original poem was unrecognizable—no more kitschy rhymes or trite observations—but details, beautifully worded and specific, that captured our island setting; a turn of phrase that evoked emotion, even laughter; a lingering sense that these words were pulled from her soul and laid bare on the page.
I honestly thought she plagiarized it. Maybe our teacher wrote it for her? I couldn’t believe the same person whose first draft we read wrote such a remarkable poem.
And that, I believe, is the most meaningful lesson I’ve learned in writing.
Both this woman and I transformed our work. My advisor wasn’t wrong to push me to recreate it; the final product was much better than the first. But the way in which she delivered the message, and the way in which the workshop leader in Greece delivered his message, were as different as our first and last drafts.
As a workshop leader myself, I want to empower my writers. This doesn’t mean I stick with flowery praise and avoid criticism, but I demonstrate belief in their talent, their story, and their strength. Even though they “failed,” it is failure seen through a different lens.
The best formula I’ve found for directing conversation is
what are my questions or what brought me out of the piece
what suggestions do I have
in that order.
Sometimes I ask, “What does this piece want to be?” Writers can get stuck in ill-suited formats without realizing it, such as the woman in Greece who needed to liberate herself from an AABB rhyme scheme; such as my master’s thesis that needed to abandon the diary format and become a collection of essays; such as the woman in my writing group who needed to compose her story as a memoir instead of a novel.
Sometimes we just need to hear, “You are a good writer. This piece was necessary for your process—now let’s talk about the next step.” If we can frame it as a revision, which is, after all, a re-vision—a new way of seeing the piece—we no longer have to see our work, or ourselves, as failures.
Jenny Currier is a full-time Grecophile and a freelance writer. She regularly contributes to Rhode Island publications, such as Motif Magazine, Providence Monthly, and East Side Monthly, and her stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Sunlight Press, and Vagabond Magazine. Her current aim is to finish a book about Greece through Rebirth Your Book. Follow her on Instagram @travelingfoodwriter and Twitter @jennycurrier.
I found this both moving and useful. Thank you so much.
I’m so glad you found it helpful 🙂 Wishing you happy writing days ahead.
This article came at the right time. I’m searching for an agent for my self help book and the process is grueling.
Fortunately, when it was time to entirely rewrite my book, I had a thoughtful editor like the leader in Greece. The rewrite is a new animal. Now I can only hope an agent and publisher finds value in it.
Thanks for your message.
Congrats on making it through the process so far! That’s a huge accomplishment. I’m glad to hear there have been great mentors along the way. Best wishes to you as you continue onward!
There is nothing as powerful as the words of a good teacher. Thank you for sharing g your experience.
Yes, absolutely. Parents, teachers. The words they say to us and about us can change our trajectories (for better or worse).
You can’t keep a born-to-write writer down. It is a calling. Great article!
I love your attitude, Karen! Keep calm and write on 🙂
Wonderful post. I was very fortunate to have an English professor for Freshman composition who instead of having us write the standard 500-word Freshman essay the way he would have written, had us go with the strengths of our own style and interpretation. We still had to follow spelling and punctuation conventions, but we could vary the sentences and how to handle the topic as we viewed it. I have tried to use that same method the few times I have critiqued writing or taught it. Dr. Self, if you are reading this, a tip of the quill pen to you.
That’s an awesome approach to an assignment, and obviously very memorable for the students! Way to pay it forward 🙂
Your story about the woman in your writing course just goes to show how much encouragement helps people blossom and grow, whereas shaming those same people make them shrink or withdraw. Highlight the talent of those around you! Thanks for sharing this great piece.
Gabi- yes, exactly. Most of us are already hyper aware of our faults, but to have someone call out our talents is such a blessing. It truly does help us flourish. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece 🙂
I love this post! Revision as a re-vision. Absolutely.
Thank you! It seems so obvious and yet I’d never thought of revision that way until graduate school.
This is a very helpful, and healing, story. Thank you.
Thank you, Lee. That’s very encouraging to hear. Best wishes to you as you journey on.
A needed reminder of a lesson I’ve learned but often forget.
I’m happy you loved your time in Tuscany working withAllison. I’m hoping to join her next Rebirth Your Book retreat.
Thanks, Jill! Drop a line if you have any questions 🙂
Jill, yes to Tuscany! It was wonderful. I can’t recommend it enough.
This piece is as beautifully written as it is useful.
Thank you, Sandra! It’s always wonderful to receive praise from writers you admire 🙂