How failure taught me 5 important lessons about the creative process

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When I started, I didn’t intend to write a novel. It started as a short story of a few thousand words. I showed a draft to a friend, whose opinion I trust, and he quickly told me that the beginning of the story was promising, but the end was junk.

So I rewrote the thing – and in doing so, I set out to fix the finale, in which a supporting character died in an absurdly cliché way. I started with the question: what if this character does not die? Well, then the story would go on. And that is certainly what happened.

Over the next 4 years, I agonized through several drafts of rewriting before my 6 page short story exploded into a 140,000 word novel. The supporting character I initially killed had become the central protagonist of the story, and they’re currently leading the charge through the follow-up novel.

I continue to learn a lot about the creative process through trial and error. My current book seems more cohesive than the previous one, but that certainly doesn’t mean writing it is easy. It helped me build on the lessons I learned.

To that end, here are five thoughts that can make the maze of the creative process a little less intimidating.

Hemingway may have produced the first draft of The sun is also rising in 2 months – and Stephen King seems to produce a new 800-page monstrosity every other weekend or so – but for the rest of us mere mortals, finishing creative work takes time. I’m talking about years.

The initial 40,000 words of my first book took me almost 3 years to produce because my dedication was sporadic at best. The following 100,000 works were released in less than a year because I set daily word count requirements.

To be honest, I often missed my daily goal. But even when I failed, I still managed to do * some * work.

Some progress is better than no progress. And 2 days of progress is better than 1 day. So 3 days is better than 2. And… you understand. Consistent progress quickly adds up.

When you work on a project for a long time, your feelings about it will change. The creative process leads to days when you feel like you have a clear connection to the muses, and others when you feel like a total loser. On behalf of writers, there are many times when we seriously consider setting our computers on fire and walking in the sea.

Through this whole emotional boost, there’s one thing I’ve learned to do: lean on them. Embrace the masochism that comes with doubting the merit of your work, your life, and perhaps the entire universe. Celebrate the exhilaration of breaking a creative blockade. Put those feelings into your fictional characters, song lyrics, or art.

Of course, you will develop harsh judgments about your work – sometimes fairly, sometimes not. It is often difficult to distinguish one from the other. So keep charging no matter what. Reach this daily progress goal and count it as a victory.

Unlike the process of writing my first book, I kind of have a plan in place for my second. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s all settled, but at least I know where I’m going. Hope this helps me a lot easier.

Getting a feel for what you’re trying to say and where you’re trying to go can save you a lot of creative frustration. That said, too much organization can zap a lot of the spontaneity needed.

Be organized, but leave room for improvisation. Sometimes you’ll learn that one of your character’s motivations may stray from your initial vision, inspiring a much richer story. Sometimes a musician (especially jazz musicians) can color outside the lines of a song. This is when a lot of the magic happens.

Having direction while leaving room to get out of the way is the best way to strike a balance between efficiency and discovery.

As I explained earlier, my short story, which became a book, was a bitter failure. And that wasn’t just one person’s opinion. My appreciation for my ability to complete a project did not make up for its lack of quality.

It was precisely this failure – and my willingness to accept it as such – that planted the seed for greater things. And even after the short had long turned into expansive, there were a number of situations that forced me to go back and start more or less from scratch. The end product was ultimately better for it.

Don’t be stubborn. Know when you made a misstep, then go back and try again.

There will likely come a time (more than once) when you conclude that everything you are doing is just plain wrong, and you will be tempted to throw in the towel. But this is precisely the time to move on and end.

Although it may seem like a waste of time, there are two good reasons to always finish what you started:

1. What looks like a dead end can in fact be a detour. Hitting a creative rut is okay. But the answer often lies in turning around and finding a different route. The key then is to get to your destination.

2. Even finishing last can teach you how to train better for the next race. The vast majority of published authors have a drawer or hard drive full of their first (usually terrible) books. Many people have fought many wars with their words before producing anything considered “publishable”. And it was these early battles that allowed them to develop the mental muscles needed to triumph. So while practice doesn’t always make you perfect, it does at least make you better.

You will often learn more by completing a bad project than by completing a perfect project. You will better understand what motivates you, how to hone your creative process, how to properly use influences to develop your own voice, and you will develop the discipline to sit down and get the job done.

If you’ve done it once, you can do it again.

Mark Twain wrote for nearly a decade before becoming what was considered the greatest author of his generation at the age of 41. Henry Miller wrote several novels before his book Tropic of Cancer broke the literary landscape at the age of 44. Annie Proulx wrote for about 30 years before her first novel Postcards put her on the path to Pulitzer reception at the age of 57.

I’m not saying it will or should take decades to complete anything of value. On the contrary, even those who have great talent have to practice their profession with the same perseverance as someone who is learning to ride a bicycle or play the guitar.

To do work. Stay consistent. And if you’re feeling downhearted, keep going until you surprise yourself with a breakthrough that tickles your inspiration.

Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, art, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Times, Salon, Men’s Health, Thrillist, Vice, and more. You can track his travels and connect with him through Instagram or Twitter.



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