“Failure in the Middle” by Louise DeSalvo
March 25, 2010
I’ve been reading Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s marvelous book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (NY: Broadway Books, 2010). It’s one of those books so densely packed with ideas about how to change our behavior, and about how to elicit change in other people’s behaviors, that I will be thinking about the book’s implications for my writing practice and that of my students for a very long time.
In working with writers through the years, I’ve learned that it’s not talent that gets books written, it’s hard work. But it’s not only hard work – almost every student I’ve taught works hard. It’s learning to understand that the process of writing is not linear, but filled with peaks and valleys. It’s learning to understand that sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing but we need to work anyway. It’s learning to stay with the process through uncertainty, indecision, anxiety. And the feeling that our work is a failure. My biggest job is teaching students how to ride out the tough stages of the process. And, I’ve learned, the toughest stage of the process comes just before the biggest breakthroughs. That’s when many students abandon their work. They walk away. They’ve decided the work is a failure. Sometimes they think that because they think their work is a failure, or, rather, that their work isn’t working at the moment, they’re failures.
I know. I’ve been there. I’m there, now, with this book of mine. In the dreaded middle of the process. Halfway there. Which feels as if I’m not anywhere. Although I know I am.
Switch describes how “if you want to reach your full potential, you need a growth mindset” (164) Chip Heath and Dan Heath quote Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s observation: “Everything can look like a failure in the middle” (168). At the beginning of the process of working on a long project, we feel hope; at the end of a long project, we feel confidence. In between, though, “there is a negative emotional valley labeled ‘insight’,” (169) according to Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. During this “insight” phase, it’s easy, Brown says, to become downhearted about our work because figuring out what to do doesn’t happen quickly or easily.
It’s hard, really hard, to take a mountain of manuscripts that you’ve written – starts, false starts, finished work, half-completed work – and turn it into a completed work. Brown insists that we must create, within ourselves, the expectation of failure in the middle if we are to survive that trough in the creative arc. In fact, Brown encourages people to “seek out failure” because, he believes, that is the only way for true growth to occur.
For me, just as Switch indicates, the toughest part of the process of writing always comes in the middle. Middle. Muddle. That’s how it’s always been for me, though I forget it from book to book. I start a book, excited. I go to the desk eagerly. I fire off page after page, scene after scene. I don’t yet know, really, what the book is about. But at the beginning, I don’t need to know. I know I’m working with a subject – my father’s life during World War II, my current project – and that’s enough.
This energy, the energy of beginning, can last days, months, or years, depending on the size of the project. And then. And then. I have all these pages. And if you read the work page by page, they sound like they’re good enough. Good enough to work with. Good enough to revise through several revisions to get them to where I want them to be. But then, there’s that moment when I realize that a mass of pages, no matter how good they are, no matter how good I know they’ll become with lots more work, isn’t a book.
This is the dreaded middle. What’s the book about? I ask myself, although I thought I knew what it was about when I started. Should my father be the center? Should I be the center? Is the story worth telling? What is the story, anyway? There doesn’t seem to be a story, a narrative arc. All this work, wasted. I don’t know what I’m doing, where I’m going.
And this feels like failure. It’s the point at which, in many a potentially writer’s practice, the work comes to a dead halt. I understand that. Feeling like you’re failing in this success-oriented world isn’t an easy feeling to live with, to stay with.
How’s the work going? a well-intentioned friend asks. It’s not going anywhere, is what you want to answer. I have no idea what I’m doing, is what you want to say. But instead, you smile wanly and say, Fine, fine, even though the work isn’t fine at all. Creative people aren’t inclined to share that they’re failing at what they’re supposed to be doing.
As the authors of Switch understand, most of us don’t understand what the process of growth looks like. Most of us don’t know that what I call the dreaded middle, when the work looks like a failure, when you feel like a failure, is a necessary stage. If we know it’s coming, they say, we might be more prepared for it, less likely, then, to walk away from our projects.
But think about how elementary writing courses are taught in high school and in college. Students are taught to plan their work, then to execute their work. There’s that horror of the five-paragraph theme taught all over the place. Pick up an elementary college handbook, and you’ll see this kind of thing propounded. You pick a thesis. You outline it. In each paragraph you do this and this and this and then you do that and that and that. You write your conclusion. And then you’re done. Plan. Execute. This, taught to students by people who don’t write, who can’t write. No wonder, then, we feel like failures when we come to the dreaded middle in our writing practice. There is no such thing in this falsification of the writing process. No one’s taught you that if a work is to be a success, feeling that it’s a failure, in the dreaded middle, is inevitable, is, in fact, necessary. Most writing that’s taught in schools doesn’t encourage muddle; it demands clarity. And, says Tim Brown, clarity in the middle is the enemy of growth.
I’m easing my way through this stage by reminding myself of this truth. Still, it’s hard.
But the other day I reread The Lighthouse section of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in which the painter, Lily Briscoe – a stand-in, many believe, for Virginia Woolf herself – is pondering the esthetic problems of a painting she’s tried to complete years before. “There had been a problem about the foreground of a picture. Move the tree to the middle, she had said.” Lily had never completed that painting, but she takes up her brush to “paint that picture now.” What stopped Lily in her tracks was the middle of the process, when the painting seemed to be a failure. Now, though, Lily decides to work through that stage to try to bring her problematic work to completion.
Reading Lily’s thoughts about the middle of her process are a reminder of just how bleak that dreaded middle can be. “It was an odd road to be walking, this of painting,” Lily muses. And then she compares her feeling about this stage of the process to walking the plank: “Out and out one went, further and further, until at last one seemed to be on a narrow plank, perfectly alone, over the sea.”
That gets the feeling of danger, of solitude at the core of the experience of the middle of creating a work of art. No one, I think, has expressed it better.
Still, Lily keeps working. She makes her mistakes, changes her mind, moves forms, shifts perspective. She works until she figures out what she’s about, and she can only do this by working while she’s still terrified of working. Lily doesn’t wait for this feeling to pass, for she knows it won’t unless she keeps at it. And so, by the end of the novel, Lily sees the solution to the challenges in her canvas clearly. “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”
I have had my vision. Lily’s vision, like our vision, does not come easily. There is that terror, that feeling of failure in the middle, to be gotten through. But, like Lily (and like Virginia Woolf too), if we keep at it, we will finish. We will succeed. We will grow. We will have enacted – to some degree at least — what we envisaged we might accomplish long before when we began our work.