To be a better writer, you must embrace revision. Not just endure it, embrace it, again and again and again.
I was reminded of that imperative the other day while reading the May 16, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, specifically Malcolm Gladwell’s article, “Creation Myth,” about the legend of Xerox PARC and its connection to the development of the Apple Macintosh computer. Xerox PARC was a research-and-development center in Palo Alto, California where, in the 1970s, the computer mouse, the icon-based graphic computer interface and the laser printer all came to life and, in 1979, were seen by Steve Jobs.
What does computer-engineering history have to do with writing?
After telling the story of these “wild geysers of creative energy” at Xerox PARC, Gladwell cites psychologist Dean Simonton, who wrote, “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.”
Continuing, Gladwell says, “Simonton’s point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity. ‘The more successes there are,’ [Simonton] says, ‘the more failures there are as well.’ ”
Gladwell goes on to discuss the case of the Rolling Stones album, “Exile on Main Street,” as told in Keith Richards’ new memoir Life. The songs that stuck “had to fight from under an avalanche of mediocrity,” Gladwell writes.
Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s famous quote is a favorite of writers asked for advice on their craft: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” There is even an online literary journal, failbetter.com.
In a blog I posted here two years ago this month, I recounted the story told by one of my writing workshop mentors, Suzanne Hoover of Sarah Lawrence College, about a New Yorker story written by her faculty colleague, the late Grace Paley. When Suzanne told Paley how perfect the story was, the author replied, “It only took me 19 tries.”
Write your story. Revise it, trying to make it better. Try again, fail again, fail better. That is the path to writing success.—Alex McNab