Lake Nicola by Mary Higgins

Embracing The Failed Writer

Lake Nicola by Mary Higgins

TL/DR: Don’t be like me. Or, don’t be like the me that failed to be the writer she wanted to be.

I’m going to tell you a sorry tale of dreams and broken promises. This is what failure looks like. This was my life. This is not our future.

Let’s start at Summer, 2012. The real story begins much earlier than this, of course, but instead of starting there we are going to look at the end. The nadir.

Sixty Days of Creativity?

This summer was going to be the time it all turned around for me-the-writer. After tickling around the edges of writerdom for so long, I was going to really make it work. I would write every day, I would finish editing my book and I would set up the habits I needed to become the person I wanted to be.

It started off well. I even managed to find other people who wanted to do a similar thing and we did the damned thing, made some progress and it started to feel like this might be it. Finally, I would be a Real Writer.

We went away for a few days. No problem. I wrote a little in my notebook and relaxed enough to start thinking about all the other things I would write about once I had finished editing my book.

The weather was hot and by noon it was too stifling in my room to think, so I skipped a few days here and there. I found a new work client and started to get busy, and I had the kids at home.

Someone slammed into the back of my car leaving me with back and neck pain, for which I’m still getting physio and taking pain meds.

Then, after years of dreaming and a year of searching, the acreage of our dreams came on the market so we decided to get our house ready to sell and chase this house.

Writer, interrupted

All my plans for writing went out the window, and the truth was, I was happy to be busy doing something else because at least when you are weeding the garden or scrubbing doors or writing code other people can see what you have done at the end of the day.

I didn’t follow up with the other people who were trying to write and create, and I lost the will to even try. I didn’t even apologise to them, and for that I am sorry. It just all slid away.

I didn’t blog, or post or even use any social media much at all. I stopped using my computer except for work, and that was not a bad thing. How could that be a bad thing? I had fun, played with the kids and my house sparkled.

And yet…

Excuses, excuses

Yes, I’ve used them all. The neck pain is not an excuse because that really does hurt, but taking breaks, doing exercises and taking those tablets mean that I can get by. If I want to.

I have lost count of the articles and essays I have written in my head about politics, religion, economics, feminism, web TV, Buffy – and so many more. They were all really good. Promise.

The point is that you will never know because I didn’t write them. And that hurts.

My novel (now actually a trilogy) still needs editing enough to send to my beta readers. That aches.

That new webseries, the drama that will rip your heart out, is still just an outline. That burns.

That short story, that poem of love shattered, is incomplete and wanting. That stings.

I have failed at the fundamental part of writing, the #1 writing tip from Joss Whedon  – I didn’t FINISH IT. It hurts so much because I know I can do it, but on some level I have chosen not to.

Past performance is not an indication of future returns

How did ‘Mind My Brains, Darling!’ get written, produced, filmed, edited and uploaded? Because it was a team effort. Paul was there every step of the way and we did it, slowly, painfully, together.

Writing on your own is a solitary activity (obvious sentence is obvious). As soon as you start talking about it rather than doing it, you are not writing any more. You might be preparing to write, or clarifying your ideas, but you are not writing.

If you are part of a team, you have to talk about it. Writer’s rooms are so successful because they give you the chance to talk through your thoughts and ideas and give you a break from your own head.

But my failure to write is just that – my failure. It isn’t on anyone else but me. Which, at the end of the day, is a good thing. Because it means that I can also fix it.

Writer, know thyself

I finally figured out some of the reasons why I am a failed writer.

  • I am afraid of articulating my thoughts and ideas.
  • I am afraid of not being able to construct my arguments well enough so that they are indisputable.
  • I am afraid that I will be ignored and ridiculed.
  • I am afraid of committing the time to write when I could or should be doing other things.
  • I am afraid that I can’t actually write. That the words will not come or if they do, they will be lacking.
  • I am afraid.

This last point is the crux, the heart, the centre of my pain. I am afraid. Every time I write. Every time I don’t write. Fear has been winning so convincingly that I didn’t even realise I was in the ring.

From KO to OK

The only solution, it seems to me, is to carry on regardless. I have tried to write to imagined deadlines, and I’ve tried not writing at all. Neither has made me productive as a writer or happy as a person. As soon as I set a goal I become crushed by it. It makes me feel weak and powerless, and I don’t want to play that game anymore.

The obvious solution is to step back and write about writing, and not-writing. Redemption by proxy? I can jive with that for a while. Helping others to help myself.

And so I stand before you, a paragon of failure, ready to help you achieve your writing goals. You would do well to read this, ignore it and then find your own way.

Here are my writing tips:

1. Don’t live in your head all the time.

Get those words onto paper, your hard drive, your phone, ipod,  tape machine – anything to you available to you! Make your ideas real by committing them to a medium you can examine, probe and develop. This is the only thing that really matters. Write every single day.

Do the damned thing and FINISH IT.

2. Write for a reason

Tweeting is writing if you do it with purpose. Same goes for blogging, doodling, editing, notes, bullet points and 3000 words posted on a role-playing forum. It is writing if it has a purpose. Make this your mantra.

If your writing has no purpose, if you are just filling your time and pretending to be busy. You are not writing. You are wasting your time.

OR – WASTE YOUR TIME ON BEAUTIFUL PROSE, well-turned sentences or notes of interest. Keep doing this long enough to figure out what you are writing and why.

3. Make yourself accountable, in a way that works for you.

Some people need word counts, or writing sprints, or someone checking on them, or a combination of these things. Follow a method for a week. See if it made a difference. Be honest about whether you really followed the program. Decide if you need to give it more time and then do it, or follow another program.

OR – DON’T DO ANY PROGRAM AT ALL – just write. Often. Messily. Without a clear goal. If you keep going long enough all those bits and pieces will start to make sense.

4. Check your goals every week.

Most successful writers are incredibly focused on their goals, deadlines and output because that is how they became successful in the first place. Plan what you want to have finished by:

  • this week,
  • this month,
  • in the next six months,
  • by the end twelve months,
  • in two years

Make sure you assess how you are doing every week and update your plan accordingly.

OR – DON’T SET ANY GOALS AT ALL. Just do the damned work for now and figure out your plan later. Once you are getting somewhere, you will know. That’s the time to decide what you want to do with your stuff.

5. Read writing blogs and books.

Learn your craft from people who know, or can tell you what to do. They have been there, taught that and know what they are talking about. Structure, grammar, pacing, flow – you can learn how to do these things.

OR – DON’T DO ANYTHING EXCEPT WRITE. Find your own voice, your own style, by simply writing. And finishing what you are writing.

It’s easy to not be a failed writer. Just follow these steps to the letter and you will be golden.

Today I am not a failed writer. Today I decided to write this article, edit it quickly and post it.

I finished it.

And that’s the real point.


In my haste to actually finish, I forgot to mention why I wrote this today. My friend, Shevonne, posted a link on Tumblr to ‘Five Realizations that Helped Me Write Regularly‘, which got me to thinking about how I could easily write five ways to fail at writing. Thank you, Shevonne!

4 comments on “Embracing The Failed WriterAdd yours →

  1. Thank you, Shevonne! I think that’s the trick, isn’t it? Failure is only a bad thing if it stops you learning or it makes you afraid to try again.

  2. Good on ya for this, Mary – and BTW, *I* always think of you as a writer, and a talented one, at that. We all encounter roadblocks, but writing your way through them, or picking up when you can, is really the key. It’s kinda like a lot of other stuff: so, you smoked today?That’s just today, so don’t smoke: right now. Had a drink? That was then, and this is now – just don’t have one *now*. So, you didn’t write? Then just: write now. *Now* is all we ever have, anyway. ; ] And for a solitary writer, I think this is a valuable thing to learn: “As soon as you start talking about it rather than doing it, you are not writing any more.” For a talky gal like me, it’s easy to talk my way out of writing, when I just need to write.

    Anyhoo, I’ll always look forward to reading anything *you* write. You is the bee’s knees. ; ]

  3. Thank you for the reply and affirmation. Connecting is a wondrous thing, thank you for taking the time 🙂

    You are dead right. It’s facing the struggle every day and getting it done, or moving past those days when it doesn’t happen to pick up and start again. “Now” is all we ever have, but some days (or weeks, or months) it feels that we don’t even have that.

    Even while I was writing this, I nearly stopped so I could tweet that I was writing it. That’s borderline pathology. I want to be a writer, not someone who wants to be a writer but spends her time talking about how great it would be if she wrote.

    We can do this. It’s what we do. That’s why we write. Always.

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