The Writing Process

6,000 Filaments to a Light Bulb: Why You Need to Fail Many, Many Times Before You Find Something That Works

thomas edison light bulb

Why do we conflate creating with suffering?  The word “artist” conjures images of manic-depressive poets who drink themselves to death and mad painters who chop off their own ears.  Our conception of writers is especially bleak.  In our minds, the writer is a tormented soul who spends his days hunched over his desk, forehead wrinkled in anguished concentration, fingers cramped at the keyboard.  His work is effortful, exhausting.  Rather than a blissful collaboration with the muse, his writing feels like a battle.  Hour after hour, he’ll write only to later regard what he wrote with disgust.  He almost never writes a sentence that satisfies him.  His trashcan is a graveyard of ideas that didn’t work out.  “This is moronic/stupid!” he’ll tell himself.  Open his notebook and you’ll find evidence of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of false starts: words that never arranged themselves into sentences, ugly, trite, over-used phrases that have been exasperatedly crossed out.

But writing only causes such suffering when we hold ourselves to impossible standards.  In his rousing Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo, executive director of National Novel Writing Month Grant Faulkner reminds us to never measure our first attempts against the masterpieces of others.  When we see something truly great— a moving film, a breathtaking painting, a stunning, sensuous bit of poetry— we’re overcome by awe— and a devastating sense of our own inadequacy.  “How can Plath be so brilliant?” we wonder, “How can she come up with such imaginative ways of describing something?”  We’d never think to compare our crippling depression to a “bell jar” or our seemingly endless life choices to “figs” falling from a fig tree.  Compared to Plath’s expertly-crafted poems, our own verse feels fumbling.  We weren’t precocious wunderkinds who published our first poems at the age of 9; we’ve never been (and probably never will be) published in Harpers or the New York Times.  Comparing ourselves to our idols catapults us into a pit of terrible self-loathing.

The problem with such comparisons is they’re unfair.  We don’t compare our early work to Plath’s first article in Seventeen; we compare it to Ariel.  But the fact is we can’t compare ourselves to masters of the craft when we’re only beginners.  We certainly can’t compare our raw rough drafts to the polished, perfected final products of our favorite author.

In many ways, a book is a perilous illusion: when we read The Bell Jar, we only see the final product— not the process it took to get there.  The random notes that never amounted to anything.  The countless sentences scratched out.  The piles of crumpled pieces of paper.  The dozens of disheartening rejection letters.  “When we see that one great shining achievement— a literal light bulb in Edison’s case— we don’t see all the experiments leading up to it that didn’t shine, all the dud light bulbs smashed on the ground,” Faulkner writes, “Edison tested 6,000 different filaments.  He knew that to get one great idea, you have to go through hundreds of pieces of wadded up paper.”

Edison was only able to harness the power of electricity and make history because of his thousands of failures.  Each time electric current failed to pass through his filament, he gained invaluable insight and was able to make the next light bulb better.  Dogged and determined, Edison never let himself be discouraged by his so-called “failures.”  Instead, he regarded them with playful, not-so-serious humor: “I haven’t failed,” he said, “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

We should embrace the same inquisitive scientific spirit of trial and error.  Just as Edison had to try thousands of different filaments before he could invent a functioning light bulb, we’ll most likely need to scribble out hundreds of ideas before we can write a finished book.  The reality is our first painting won’t be a Picasso, our first short story won’t be comparable to Hemingway or Fitzgerald.  Our words aren’t going to be able to dance immediately— they’re going to trip over their heels, lose the beat, forget the choreography.

Above all, if we want to write, we have to be willing to write badly.  In the early stages of the writing process, we don’t have to have a clear idea of where we’re going; our brainstorming can be nonsensical, stupid, silly, mad, messy.  We don’t have to arrange our ideas in systematic Roman numeral outlines, all neat and orderly; we can just jot down bullet points, half-formed sentences, bits of dialogue, sketches, scribbles.  We certainly don’t have to demand we express ourselves perfectly.

Next time you’re brainstorming for your next project or you’re suffering from an unbearable case of writer’s block, aim for quantity, not quality.  Write as much as possible.  It can be anything: a character detail, a new plot angle.  Focus on the number of pages— not the quality of the writing.  Write with abandon, as passionately and recklessly as two long estranged lovers might kiss when they’re finally reunited after years of war.  Give yourself permission to experiment, explore.  “Be daring, be extravagant, ” Faulkner implores us, “Don’t write the scene or chapter, just explore possibilities, and let yourself go wild.”  As Edison and his famous light bulb demonstrate, we’re more likely to succeed the more we fail.

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