Pushing Through Writing Failure with the Help of a Lost Horse by Heather Mackey
Stories thrive on reversals. You get your heart’s desire, only it turns out to be the worst thing that could happen to you. Or, it looks like all is lost, but then somehow you save the day.
One of my favorite examples of the narrative power of reversal is found in a very simple story from China called “The Lost Horse.” I encountered it through storyteller Joel ben Izzy, who wrote a fantastic book called The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. In “The Lost Horse,” a wise man goes through a series of reversals of fortune. Whether the change is favorable or not, his response is always the same: What seems like a blessing could be a curse. What seems like a curse could be a blessing.
I remember this story so well because—after a great deal of misery and self-flagellation—I recognize it as the story of my relationship to writing.
In my case, my cursed blessing was that I happened to be good at writing. I didn’t fear it. Sometimes I enjoyed it. As I grew older, and as I realized I could turn out a nice sentence now and again, I was told, “You’re good at this.”
Like many children, I accepted this adult verdict on my abilities, never realizing that there might be a flipside to this blessing. I never revised school work. Quite the opposite: I developed a habit of winging it, and wrote papers at the very last minute. Later, as I found work as a journalist, I was always late—submitting copy at the very last minute. And I hated—HATED—to be edited.
The reversal caught up to me when I sold the book that would eventually become Dreamwood. Seven years ago I went to an SCBWI conference with the first chapter of a story about a young girl traveling to a remote and spooky forest in a fantasy version of the Pacific Northwest. My story had strangely powerful trees, sea serpents, ghosts—all the cool stuff I could think of. And apparently there was enough there to interest a New York editor. While I was thrilled, shocked, surprised, I also felt vindicated. That early assessment of me as a good writer must have been right after all.
Then the curse began.
“It needs a lot of work,” my editor told me. Turns out I wasn’t that great at story mechanics, plotting, character arcs—and … I’ll stop there before I get too depressed.
During the long years I worked on the book I kept a “Notes” file into which I poured all my grief and frustration. In it are long rants that begin, “What is wrong with me?” or “Why can’t I write this stupid thing?”
Now that the book is behind me, the answer is pretty clear. Writing is hard, but because I’d had it kind of easy in the beginning, I felt that any roadblock threatened my deepest sense of self, so I avoided critiques, revision, and real editing. When my novel wasn’t working I didn’t realize that I was simply going through the kind of “failure” that other professionals—like classical musicians or athletes—experience all the time. That is, they practice what they can’t do until they can do it.
And here is where the curse turns into a blessing again.
I had to learn so much and face so many fears that I became much, much stronger as a writer.
It’s only now that Dreamwood is coming out that I see the parallels between myself and my heroine, Lucy Darrington. Lucy absolutely hates to be wrong. It’s hard for her to admit it when she is. But her whole journey in the book is to get to a do-or-die situation where she realizes she’s wrong—and then to pick herself up and keep going anyway.
I’ve talked to people who didn’t have it easy as writers in the beginning. Early on they became used to the idea that they had to go back again and again to get things right. These writers turned their weaknesses into strengths.
It can take the same amount of struggle to reach your goals, regardless of whether you start as a “good” writer or not. I hear the teachers at my children’s schools talk to kids about the importance of revision, and realize how much more sophisticated they are about the writing process than some of the teachers I had as a child.
What I hope these kids hear is that there is no verdict on their abilities that matters more than their own effort. Striving, failing, and getting back up again are natural parts of the cycle. They’re simply reversals, and without them there’d be no good stories.
Heather Mackey has held a number of writing and editing jobs—including Dog Editor at Pets.com and ghost writer for a former CIA agent. Her debut Dreamwood comes out in June 2014 from Putnam (Penguin). She lives with her family in Berkeley, California, and is on the National Writing Project’s Writers Council. You can find her online at http://www.heathermackey.com and on Twitter at @heathermackey.