Opinion | How I Learned to Fail Better


There we were, cavorting in a creaky old barn as a D.J. played Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark.” Some 200 authors raised their arms in unison and shouted, “I’m sick of sittin’ ’round here tryin’ to write this book.”

The party took place at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, in Vermont, where I spent nearly two weeks this August. If you’re not a writer, most of what you know about Bread Loaf might come from an episode of “The Simpsons,” “Moe’N’a Lisa,” in which the series’s mendacious bartender, Moe, winds up at “Word Loaf” along with Lisa Simpson, who has helped him with his poetry. The episode concludes with a cartoon Jonathan Franzen and a cartoon Michael Chabon in a fistfight. (Chabon: “You fight like Anne Rice!”)

It’s worth noting that virtually everything in that episode is wrong, except the hayride. Yes, there’s a hayride.

The conference has changed from its early days, though. No longer are there pitchers of Bloody Marys at lunch, and it has been decades now since John Gardner’s wife hired a crop duster to litter the mountain campus with leaflets accusing him of ducking out on his child support. No longer does Robert Frost somehow light his papers on fire during a reading by Archibald MacLeish, after loudly complaining, “Archie’s poems all have the same tune!” Gone are the luminaries of earlier eras, including Norman Mailer, Ralph Ellison, Truman Capote, Stanley Elkin, Toni Morrison, Anne Sexton, Richard Yates, Eudora Welty, John Irving and George R.R. Martin.

Bread Loaf is a lot more diverse than it used to be, thanks to the efforts of its new director, the poet Jennifer Grotz. This summer the place abounded with men and women of color, Asian writers, queer people. My students ranged in age from their early 20s to over 60. I was not, for once, the only transgender person. It was all pretty great.

[[A free audio collection of readings and lectures on the craft of writing from this year’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference can be found here.]]

When the conference ended, though, I was left with a sense of melancholy and exhaustion — and the understanding that it was time for me to get back to work, and the daunting prospect of revising my current project. It’s the most important part of writing. Not coincidentally, it’s the one thing that many writers — on Bread Loaf Mountain and off — are least likely to do.

Why do we hate revision so much? Why do so many authors write a single draft and then declare their work complete?

In part, it’s because revision feels like failure. Having finished the task, who in their right mind would want to begin again? But sending out first drafts is the literary equivalent of walking around without pants. I don’t recommend it.

At Barnard, I teach a class called “Invention and Revision.” The first assignment is to write a story that is seven pages long. We come to class and talk about what works and what doesn’t. The second assignment, three weeks later, is the same story, now 21 pages long. We have the conversation in workshop once again. Then, three weeks after that, the student comes in with a third draft of the same story, three pages long. The final assignment is a fourth draft, with the length unspecified.

This echoes the process a lot of authors go through. The first draft asks the question, “Do I know anything?” The second draft — the long one — says, “Here’s everything I can think of on this topic.” The third draft — the short one — makes it shine.

My son’s French horn teacher once told him, “The difference between a good musician and a bad musician is that the good musician likes to practice.”

Multiple drafts are the writer’s equivalent of practice, and the mark of a good writer often is that she takes pleasure from watching the story morph from draft to draft. But it takes patience and time. Sometimes you have to wait a story out, let days, or months, go by, until you begin to see things more clearly.

As Samuel Beckett says, in “Worstward Ho”: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I can tell you, as a transgender person, that revision is not only the key to good writing. Sometimes it’s the very thing that helps us survive. Could there be a skill more crucial in life than learning how to reinvent not just our work but our selves?

One night at Bread Loaf I left the barn late and walked across a field with the author Stacey D’Erasmo. We looked up at the Vermont sky. A falling star streaked across the heavens.

We stood there in silence, certain that we’d see another meteor, if only we were patient and looked hard enough.


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