Why Writers Fail, Part One: Don’t Open The Ark of the Covenant!


So you’ve finally found the resolve to sit down and get some writing done. You’re seated there, fingers at the ready, your will is steely and strong. You start typing. It comes easy at first, and you’re pounding at the keyboard. Then it starts to get harder.  You grind to  a slow, painful slog, word after word. You falter. Doubt creeps into your mind. This sentence sucks, and so does this paragraph. In fact, so does the whole, stupid idea. Great satan’s beard it’s turning into monkey dung right before your eyes! You’re drowning in it. Monkey dung up to your eyeballs. You’re desperate for relief, but you can’t leave the desk. You promised. This time would be different. This time you would finish something. But OH THE PAIN! SOMEBODY PLEASE SHOOT ME! ARGGHHAAGGHH!!!

Suddenly an idea descends from the writerly heavens. Deus Ex Machina! It calls to you like an angel of mercy. “Surrender yourself to me, oh writer of dung, you shall be saved from mediocrity,” it  sings. Before you know it, your mind swims with songs of enchantment and trouble-free plotting. Oh! How beautiful it is!  You know shouldn’t listen, you know shouldn’t look, but sweet saints of valor…the idea…it’s so perfect! Soooo beauuuttiiiiiifuuuuuullll! You open a new word file, you begin to type…and  then SCREEEEEEEEEEEEE! It changes into a skull-faced demon with a rictus grin and melts the flesh off your face. Just like the idiot Nazis who opened the Ark of Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

If you are surrounded by the corpses of unfinished projects because you keep getting distracted by the maddening siren song of sexy new ideas,  you’re not alone. I was one of its hapless victims for decades. Yes, DECADES.

What is this horrific writer’s nightmare and how did you get trapped in it? Here’s the deal. At some point we all  find ourselves doubting the viability of what we’ve started. All of us. Even the best writers do. But you, you’re different from your writing idols. Unlike them, the compulsion to abandon ship is so overwhelming that you jump, leaving your old ideas there to fend for themselves on a smoking, sinking cruise ship of doom. Only to discover that your lifeboat has a hole in the bottom. Know what? That decision you just made, the decision to fling yourself into the arms of a “better idea” is the single most important reason why you will never be a writer that anyone cares about. Or even knows about. Hey, believe me, I’ve entered  the scary tree-cave-of-truth only to find my own decapitated head rolling at my feet, too. So I’m allowed to say mean stuff to you cuz I’m calling you out on dumb shit I already did. And just for future reference, if a shriveled swamp gnome asks you to go into any creepy tree-caves, LEAVE THE LIGHTSABER OUTSIDE, FOR F*CKS SAKE!

The bad news is, it’s a vicious cycle that you are doomed to repeat unless you can do one thing: finish what you start. You will never be a great, working, published writer unless you develop the writer-balls to start and finish a metric shit-ton of stuff. You have to earn it, because ideas don’t pay off unless you make a commitment to them and see them through to the end. That’s just how it works.If you can learn to push past this painful threshold, you will have accomplished something that I daresay 90% of aspiring writers are unable to do.

How do you do this? Raise your threshold for pain. Start with short fiction. Write haikus, short stories, flash fiction essays. Write whatever you want, and don’t allow yourself to start anything new until you have completed what you began. New idea pops into your head? Write it down someplace and carry on. Treat it like one of those ghostly, angel-faced sirens from the Ark. Look away before it melts your face-flesh off.

By the way, the reason your ideas turn to camel turds on the page is what Ira Glass calls The Gap. It’s the distance between what you imagine the piece to look like in your head, as opposed to what it really looks like on the page, and the horrible, nauseating, sickening, dread-filled  distance that divides the two. Those tempting new ideas clad in gossamer and smoke are your minds way of easing the discomfort of doing difficult work. It spares you the guilt of abandoning the work you already started by making you believe you’ve done it for a good reason. And it’s a lie. It’s a devious little bastard, ain’t it? Steven Pressfield calls it ‘Resistance’ in his most excellent book, The War of Art. Call it resistance. Call it distraction. Call it Sheila. Call it whatever you will. It’s a bitch. It’s a bear. It’s the hobgoblin that stands between you and the treasure room.

So if you’re gonna be a writer…a REAL writer, get comfortable with the reality that ALL YOUR IDEAS may do this to you. The bad ones AND the good ones. At some point you will inevitably find yourself doubting the awesomeness of what you’ve started. The impulse to run will be overwhelming, and you will be absolutely convinced that your work, your idea, your very existence, is worthless. But remember, it is in THIS moment where real writers are made. Writing is an endurance sport, and if you wanna get any good at it, you’ll have to train for it, learn to play hurt, learn to push past the pain. If you can learn to stare into that gaping abyss of hopelessness and fear, then turn away and carry on, you’ve won the greatest battle every writer has and will ever face. And let me tell you something, it ain’t for sissies, that’s for sure. It’s what drives artists of all kinds to drink, sex, smoke, snort  and shoot their way into blissful oblivion.

“I hate writing, I love having written.” ― Dorothy Parker

You said it, Dorothy.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: