Samuel Beckett said something like this about writing: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
I pretty much love that. I imagine most of us have a Platonically ideal story or novel or poem in mind when we start to work. Or we simply set the bar high, as we should. For me, anyway, I rarely come close. If I’m lucky, something emerges from the chaos, but it’s almost never what I started out to do and it certainly isn’t as wonderful as I’d hoped.
But it is usually livelier than some of the first drafts. More fun to read. Marginally spell-binding in one paragraph after all. A trifle ruddier. Not as awful as I feared. I’d taken Beckett’s advice and failed better.
Every first draft is a total failure for me, anyway. My Platonic ideal for one is very, very modest: finish. (I doubt that even qualifies as an ideal.) When I look at an early draft, I think of the two-headed calf I saw at the Illinois State Fair: interesting and grotesque. Pitiable and risible.
Usually (turn away, Reader, if you are squeamish), I just cut one of the heads off and turn the beast into a recognizable animal. Sometimes the operation isn’t a success and the thing dies. HOWEVER every now and then the monster turns out to be exactly what I didn’t know I wanted but is just right for the job. Or at least I can follow its cloven hooves through the snow and, Look! A little house with a fireplace where I can fail in comfort.
So — many of you from Hamline are home starting a new semester with new advisors. They’ll give everyone time and attention and lots of advice. My (unsolicited) advice is brief and borrowed from Mr. Beckett: When what you’re working on goes to pieces, try again. Fail better.