Success Through Failure: Writing Teaches Writing

By Patrick Kirkland · March 9, 2011

Writer’s Note:

This is dreadful, awful, horrendous, and so it goes… when you’re a writer.

It’s not that the article you’re embarking upon right now is overflowing with bad content or afflicted from poor execution. In truth, my intention was to spin my own incidents around to help teach how a writer’s failure is actually a success in its own right. But, this article doesn’t really tell. It hints. It alludes. It implies.

Sure, I tried rewriting and fixing it. I let it sit for a while, but that didn’t work. There was a problem somewhere. And there still is a problem… somewhere. It’s just that I have no clue what it is, but when you’re a writer, not knowing how to fix “the problem” is often par for the course. And for me, it actually took a friend to point out that my “Success in Failure” article this week is just that: a failure. And so it goes…

So what do I do about it? Not much. Scrap it and try it again, but of course that would take more time, and I do have a deadline. So I send it out as is. And then I get over it.

Writing is like that. You have failures. You have successes. It’s not always the quality of the work that defines the writer; it’s the fact that you do it. As screenwriters, fiction writers, column writers, we’re always going to have failures. All of us. Sometimes they’re public. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be able to throw our work in the trash before anyone notices. And sometimes the failures get into the hands of people who are less ‘delicate’ with your passion and hard work. And truthfully, it sucks.

There’s no getting around it, though. There’s nothing you can really do about it. This journey takes us to places where, sometimes, we just don’t want to go. Nobody wants to be on the opposite side of a producer’s desk being told our last year or more of writing was a complete waste. But if you’re writing, it’s never a waste. You’re always learning, and often, it’s through our failures that we learn the most.

Each one of our failures is an opportunity. Nathan Lane said it best on The Actor’s Studio. To paraphrase, when asked what motivated him, Lane told James Lipton that for all of us – writers, actors, filmmakers, painters, whatever – every time someone told us “you can’t do that”, “you’re not good enough”, etc, that creating was our chance to retort, “Oh yeah?”

But that “Oh yeah?” must be married to fortitude, dedication, and a willingness to read your own work with objectivity. You can’t love your writing unconditionally. You must love “to do it” but also be able to listen to it with understanding – to really embrace your failures, and apply what you have learned so that when you do come back with your “Oh yeah?” you prove to everyone that you do have what it takes.

So go nuts. Take your failures, embrace them with all your might, and spin them around to show why you’re good enough. For myself, I can certainly try to make the next Script Tips… In Action article much, much better. But for now, so it goes…


Writing Through Failure: Lessons Learned

I was ruined from failure when I completed my last play. But not really ruined.

The first 100 pages were horrible, rotten, absolutely terrible. But fortunately for me, the play was 107 pages long, so at least I delivered a few pages of something salvageable. But it wasn’t what I did that worked in the play that was valuable. It was everything I learned from my plethora of failures because sometimes it’s our failures that help us find the road to success.

I poured everything into that play for six months. Day after day I spent at the library, writing amazing dialogues, finding incredibly intricate uses of detailed set pieces. I pulled fantastic characters from my head and gave them life. When the first draft was finished, I went out, bought myself a scotch, and immediately started on the second draft. This time I streamlined. I cut pages and pages. Got down to the heart of the story. Before long, my second draft was complete. And then I did what every writer should do: I set up a reading.

One fine Saturday, I had my New York City actor friends get together- yes, NYC, the acting heart of Broadway – in my apartment for a good old script reading. Finally, we would all hear the “greatness” that was my play.

The first lines spoken were a complete dream. Even the stage directions sounded amazing. My world, so long trapped in my head, was finally coming to life. But the first scene had a hitch. I took a note and kept going. One of my actresses couldn’t figure out how to read her lines, okay, cut in and make a note and keep going. Scene 2. Two male leads. 15 minutes of GREAT Dialogue. One line after the other, and the pace was truly amazing. Scene 3. Needed some work. Listening to the flow, I scrapped entire pages, reworking on the fly. On it went. Act One was over, and onto Act Two. The same thing happened: a few good moments, a few bad, some reworking needed. I’d look at the clock to keep track of time. By the end, we were just shy of two hours.

As the last few lines of the play were spoken, I beamed. The actors finished, closed their scripts, and were quiet. Finally, somebody “Okay,” and the stillness broke. The actors got up, the audience pulled their things together, and everybody left.

Without saying anything.

Where was my moment of greatness? The moment I had been waiting for, the one where they all congratulated me? The one where they shook my hand and thanked me for the experience? Why were they not offering to take my play to their theater director?

Concerned, but un-changed, I let the room go. I told myself they needed to think about it. They needed to take it in. The next day, I wrote an email, thanking everyone, asking for any thoughts, any ideas, anything at all. Only one person, a close friend, sent back an email asking if I wanted the whole truth or just thoughts on certain scenes. Reeling, I asked for the whole truth. And that’s when the worst possible news came: “I spent an hour and a half getting pissed off waiting for the main character to actually do something.”

Surely, I told myself, he didn’t know what he was talking about. Of course the main character did something; he spent almost two hours doing something. He talked to people and went to places. He said cool things; he had amazing dialogue. I actually deleted the email. It took a week before I picked back up the script to go over it. And when I did, I finally saw it.

All of my notes were based on dialogue, none on structure. I had no notes on character choices, no notes on goals, no notes on plot… because I had no plot. I had no structure. So I quickly sequenced out my play, scene after scene – something, which by the way, I didn’t do while writing the play – and I came to the grim realization that my friend was exactly right. My hero had no clearly defined goal(s), no specific obstacles to overcome, no inner conflict, no weakness or flaws that got him into trouble, no qualities to get him out of that trouble, no change or growth, no character arc. Basically, my hero had no journey. 

On page 1, I put the character into a dilemma, and then I ended the scene without any real choices being made. On page 18, I put the character into another dilemma, and then ended the scene again without him making any choices. Page 40, the same thing. At the midpoint, my hero was not only not at the opposite of where he started, but he was exactly where he started: yet to make any real decisions. In fact, it wasn’t until page 97, eight pages from the end, that he finally made any real decision at all.

I can argue that that was the point of the play. “The character’s journey, his arc, you see, was trying to get him to make a decision.” Sure, and that’s an argument.

But I’d also be full of crap.

I had written 3 drafts of 100 pages of pure nothing, and then presented it and expected the world to change. The play was a failure. Not even salvageable by rewrites, as it’d be a page 1 rewrite, and my character just wasn’t that interesting. My play sucked. And that meant I sucked.

But I didn’t crumbled. I wasn’t beaten. To defy them all and my own self-loathing, I picked up my pen and paper and started outlining another story. Immediately! This time around, my hero had to make a decision on page 2, and run with it. This time around, I’d put him in between a rock (massive ones) and a hard place (concrete corners) every few pages, and squeeze him into finding a new way to overcome each obstacle. This time around, I was changing the character with every page, and inventing a story that was a hundred times more interesting than the last.

Sometimes, the writing is just going to suck. Sometimes, you’re a failure. Sometimes, you’re ruined because of that failure. But if you’re a real writer, you give yourself one day to wallow in your sorrows. You go to the bar. You get drunk. You curse out the world and the fact that you can’t be anything else but a writer. And then, the next day… You get over it. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. And it’s always about the next play – never focusing on the fumble – that wins the game.

If you’re a writer, you’re going to fail – a lot. But you must listen and learn from those failures, and most importantly, be able to pick up the pen and start again afterwards. Hemingway said it best, “The first draft of anything is shit.” But the second draft, or the third, or the 7th or 17th are up to you. From crap to brilliance is a long way, but every time you begin again, you get a little closer to success.