Being Butch About The Waywards

We all know about the works that don’t go well and never find their way to completion. I have a strong memory of many paintings that ate up enormous amounts of my energy, time and expensive materials but just refused to turn the corner and come back into the fold of the finished. They are my waywards. The recalitrants. The incorrigibles.

Dan Kois wrote about this in the fiction writer’s world in his piece, Burn Before Reading:

“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel “Fountain City” — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.”

I can’t help but take comfort in Kois’ assemblage of failed novels, many by writers who are prolific and successful. Some are darkly humorous about these forays into un-success: Jennifer Egan remembered her 600 page novel written when she was 22. “’I would send this book to people,’ she said, ‘and they would become unreachable. And that includes my mother.’” And Elizabeth McCracken spent over four years working on a novel before finally throwing in the towel. “’Oh my heavens!’ she said. ‘It hurt for maybe a week. And then I decided to be butch about it.’”

Being butch about bad trips down dead end roads does take some practice. It also helps to remember that the whole thing is sort of a mystery anyway. In the words of ultra-prolific Stephen King, “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub,” he said. “Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”

5 Replies to “Being Butch About The Waywards”

  1. Ah, deliciously honest sentiment here, one (as I’m writing my way to a book) that resonates. Thank you for this post, Deborah.

  2. I admire novelists who can throw in the towel after years of work; from my perspective, in comparison an unsuccessful painting is a small blip on the horizon. A friend once told me about a scientific journal whose premise was to describe failed experiments in the expectation that this would help scientists in their work. The journal failed; no one wanted to read about projects that were not a success.

  3. ‘Being butch about bad trips down dead end roads”…What ever you are working on, for an expected result…it is difficult to accept failure. But unless you change directions, you are likely to end up where you are headed. And leave the carry ons there.

  4. Thank you. It’s so nice to know that other artists have this problem too. Makes me feel so much better. I’ve been taking my “failed paintings” and recycling them into my latest series. The juxtaposition that is created by covering these with abstract pointillism is rewarding and educational for me.
    Thanks again for the post.

  5. Terresa, I didn’t know you were writing your way into a book. Cheering you on with this effort. Like you don’t have enough to do already…

    Altoon, The failed “failure journal” reminds me of a book I read a few years ago that focused on big ideas that failed. It was fascinating, written by a historian. I can’t remember the author (I hate when that happens!) It will come to me at some point…

    Diana, I like that: “Unless you change directions, you are likely to end up where you are headed.” Oh yeah. I know that.

    Adeaner, I’m a big recycler. Sometimes to a fault. Good luck with your “redirection.”

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