Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 40.
So gosh, we’re still on the upslope, we still have so far to go, and therefore the good news is, if you are not yet a flawless writer, if you still, in your most honest self-reflective moments gaze upon your works and discern that there may just be some room for improvement, we have plenty of time left to educate you, arm you with robust skills, and tough you up so you pop out the other end of this process a sort of literary supersoldier.
If you’ve found parts of it tricky, if you’ve had times where you felt you were being asked to operate at a level beyond that at which you feel qualified, fantastic. That’s where you’re making the biggest gains. Without training muscles to failure, we don’t stimulate them to grow. Because they don’t need to because you’re strong enough already.
Ever heard the adage ‘if you fail to plan you’re planning to fail’? Well you should plan to fail. Failure is essential. If you fail to fail you’re failing to learn. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of setting tiny goals, ticking them off, getting that little dopamine hit and building momentum.
But momentum is hugely overrated. I mean don’t forget that, in the creative arts, it’s just a metaphor. You’re not literally bound by the laws of Newtonian physics. Well, you are, you can’t pass through walls or reverse entropy, but I mean they don’t apply to your creative practice in absolute ways. You can turn up, one morning, any morning, and just explosively restart, zero to a hundred, boom. Momentum is mostly a myth.
And there’s something to be said for learning to embrace failure, pain, sadness, accepting them not just as inevitabilities but an enriching part of the wholeness of human experience. Every novel and every movie is a failure. I truly believe that. They’re just too hard and complex to ever do perfectly, and that’s great. So to really thrive as creative practitioners part of what we need to do is practise failing. I’m going to harp on about this in the days and weeks ahead because it’s really the heart of the matter and it’s the glowing gem you can carry out of your writing practice into the rest of your life. It’s a wonderful and transformative thing and you, as a fantastic, valuable human being deserve that wonder and freedom – so let’s start doing something about it right now, eh?
Central to the popular conceptions of a writer’s experience of failure is the rejection letter.
Now I find it hard to say no to things.
I’m one of those annoying flake artists who says ‘ok, I’ll check whether I can’ then doesn’t get back, because I’m anxious about letting whoever it is down. Till eventually they chase me up the day before and I have to be like ‘nope, sorry, I’m busy’ or I make up some lie about a sudden illness. Why wasn’t I honest straightaway? It’s definitely something I’m trying to get better at, I’m not proud, I’m just being honest with you because we’re friends.
So today we’re going to continue our theme of ‘All The Things We Cannot Say’ and practise the art of saying no by writing a rejection letter. Someone, for some reason, is turning something down. Could be explaining to someone else why they didn’t get the job. Could be declining an invitation to a fancy dinner party. Could be letting a dear friend know why the letter writer isn’t going to be coming on that backpacking trip they’ve been planning for six months. Could be a romantic brush-off. Could be an agent or editor turning down a writer. The swine!
Now of course the letter writer doesn’t have to be honest. Or rather, as with some of the scenarios we’ve practised in previous days, they don’t have to be direct. They could be making up all sorts of excuses, maybe because they don’t want to hurt the person’s feelings, or because the other person is more powerful than them – imagine, for example, a knight responding to a king who has requested she go slay a dragon – or because they’ve done something they want to hide.
But so this exercise isn’t over in one sentence (‘Sorry, I’m busy.’) you’ll need to invent some pretext as to why they’re going into a bit of detail. Maybe the person they’re writing to wasn’t satisfied with their first, shorter answer. Maybe they genuinely like this person and want to let them down easy. Or maybe they’re going the other way. Maybe they’re sick of getting requests like this and they’re going to make an example of this person by chewing them out. Maybe they’re incredibly vain and they imagine every letter they write as one day existing in an archive of their correspondence, so they always compose elaborate, pompous replies to the smallest of enquiries.
Think about the voice of this character. Do they use long flowing sentences full of florid language? Is their tone very informal and full of in-jokes that show they know the person they’re writing to really well? Are there things they mention (‘He’s never been the same since that business with the buffalo.’) that we don’t have the context for but the writer and recipient do?
Don’t worry if you don’t manage to finish the letter. And don’t work too hard puzzling it out. If you like you can even start with an imaginary address, but once you get to ‘Dear’ and then a name, or it might even open ‘Hi’ or a very blunt ‘Sir’, like a letter to The Times, once you get there, and then write the first line, I think you’ll have a thread you can start to pull on, to deduce the full story here.
After that, all you have to do is listen, and write down what the person says.
Right. A ten minute rejection letter. Ready? Three… two… one… Go.
And you are done.
Don’t know how far you got with the letter. Whether the person was still dillydallying or whether they had rounded things up.
Again, part of the point of this is getting you to play with gaps. Epistemological lacunae as we pretentious literary types call them when we’re feeling insecure and want to perform our erudition at each other. It’s fun when a character’s speech swerves to avoid invisible shapes. After a while, and enough swerves, we start to get a sense of what those shapes might be. And that’s very addictive for humans. Pattern recognition from incomplete data sets. Such-and-such a character goes quiet every time they mention the island in the middle of the boating lake. What’s going on there?
It’s such a simple technique that you might worry it’s too blunt for fiction, but you’d be amazed at how effective it is. Any incomplete pattern, any two points of information that imply an arc towards a third, my goodness we, as pattern-creating, storytelling machines, just eat that nonsense up.
Hence the classic writing adage: show, don’t tell. That’s why it’s so important. The payoff, for readers, is connecting the dots. Reading between the lines. Squinting just right and making the pattern come into focus. If you try to do that for them, it’s like handing them a colouring book with all the pages scribbled on.
Okey-dokey. I think we’re done here for today. Thank you for your work. Well done. I shall see you tomorrow.