Writing and the Necessity of Failure

I just visited the fine folks of Eastern Kentucky University’s low-residency MFA program, The Bluegrass Writers Studio, and was reminded once again of all the warm and wonderful people who are part of this extended family we sometimes call our community of writers. I love seeing old friends and making new ones. Each time I visit a group of writers, I’m heartened by how many smart, funny, generous, and loving people practice this craft. You folks at EKU, you know who you are! Thank you so much for your hospitality.

In the question and answer session that followed my craft talk, I found myself telling the story of a visit to a high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I read from and talked about my novel, The Bright Forever. I remember sitting on top of the teacher’s desk at the front of the room, the students at their desks, which were in neat rows. I told them that I had written about 200 pages of the first draft before I realized what it was about the material that really interested me.

“So I threw those 200 pages away,” I said, “and then I started over.”

A boy sitting directly in front of me, leaned forward, a concerned look on his face. “Dude,” he said, in a whisper, “are you all right?”

He couldn’t, first of all, imagine writing 200 pages of anything, and then, to throw them away? Well, that was obviously the action of a mad man.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “In fact, that was the best day, because that was the day I knew exactly what I was up to in that book.”

The lessons learned?

  1. Sometimes you have to write a lot of pages to know where you’re going.
  1. Don’t be afraid to let the narrative go off the rails, venturing into territory you never would have been able to predict. Sometimes the good stuff is there. Sometimes it’s where you’ll find the heart of the thing.
  1. Be patient. Sometimes it takes a good while for you to know exactly what you’re up to.
  1. Everything in the early drafts is fluid. Nothing is set in stone. Anything can be changed later.
  1. We have to fail before we succeed. Give yourself permission to alter your initial conception of the project at hand. Writing is an act of discovery. Bernard Malamud said he always wrote a story or novel three times: once to understand it, once to improve the prose, and once to make the work say what it still needed to say. Some of us write a story or novel many more than three times, but the general progression is the same. We first write to know the work better. I’d probably switch Malamud’s numbers two and three. I tend to want the work to say what it still has to say before I worry about polishing the prose.

The bottom line is this: Let the work tell you what it is. It always knows and it’s just waiting for you to hear its heart pulsing. When you finally hear it, the real work begins. Celebrate. Do the happy dance. You’ve earned your job and you have many glorious days ahead doing work that is now focused and full of purpose. Usually, we have to fail before we can get to where the work wants us to be.

But once we’re there? Man, oh man, that’s the best day.


  1. Susan S. Carpenter on January 11, 2016 at 9:35 am

    I’ve been waiting for signposts. Thank you, Lee.

    • Lee Martin on January 12, 2016 at 12:16 pm

      The signposts are there, Susan. They just might be hard to see on this snowy day in Ohio!

  2. Ellen Birkett Morris on January 11, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Thanks for this. There is so much to be said for surrendering to the process.

    • Lee Martin on January 12, 2016 at 12:16 pm

      Ellen, you’re right about surrendering to the process, but I know it’s so hard to do sometimes when we’re impatient for results.

  3. Sarah on January 11, 2016 at 11:19 am

    Thank you, Lee. I new this one would be pertinent to my writing.

    • Sarah on January 11, 2016 at 11:20 am

      Knew. Damn iPhones!

    • Lee Martin on January 12, 2016 at 12:17 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Sarah. Good luck with whatever you’re currently working on.

  4. Tina Neyer on January 11, 2016 at 11:21 am

    Lee, I appreciate the encouragement to take risks. Sometimes, the letting go aspect of writing is more like a death march. It can be difficult to listen to my own instincts and do what is right for me.

  5. Bar on January 23, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Maybe if we didn’t use the word ‘fail’ we’d be better off? As a songwriter I write and write and write until a song comes into focus. All that writing doesn’t feel like failure, it feels like process.One song of mine can easily require 60 – 70 pages of prose to figure out what I’m trying to say in 16 lines. With longer pieces of writing, those early pages feel too precious to ditch somehow. But I scrapped 200 pages of a memoir over the summer too and it felt great. Nothing in that writing was useable but I figured out what I didn’t want to do with my book.

    • Lee Martin on January 23, 2016 at 5:20 pm

      Bar, you’re so right that each of those drafts is a necessary part of the process. There really is no failure, only attempts that take us closer and closer to what we have to say.

      • Bar on January 27, 2016 at 10:54 am

        good morning, Lee. thanks for your gracious reply. I woke up with this notion of drafts and failure on my mind having attempted another piece last night (which “failed”). I couldn’t sleep wondering what the problem was. Woke up with the realization that I’m trying to write a book I was on fire about years ago but which doesn’t float my boat anymore. Time to do the writing that’s got me on fire now. Thank you.

        • Lee Martin on January 28, 2016 at 12:14 pm

          Follow the spark, Bar. Go where you feel the most urgency.

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