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How Can I Silence My Fear of Failure When Starting to Write?

By Ligaya Mishan

Edgar Degas’ “Sulking” (ca. 1870) at The Met Fifth Avenue in New York.
Courtesy of The Met Museum
Edgar Degas’ “Sulking” (ca. 1870) at The Met Fifth Avenue in New York.

In T’s advice column Culture Therapist, either Ligaya Mishan or Megan O’Grady solves your problems using art. Have a question? Need some comfort? Email us at advice@nytimes.com.

Q: How do you silence your fear of failure when you start writing something you love very much? — Name Withheld

A: I think the first question is, for you, what is failure? Is it measured by the projected response of a future audience — puzzlement, recoil, sheer indifference — or by the distance between what you envision and what ends up on the page? You are likely your own cruellest reader. (I know I am.) And certainly there are times in the writing process when a cool gimlet eye is required to save us from our worst instincts, but not before you’ve had a chance to start.

The beginning is the worst: the confrontation with blankness, then the awful narrowing of possibilities the moment the words foam up and shrivel. In Ted Chiang’s parable-like short story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” from his new collection, “Exhalation,” a teenager in a preliterate West African village is taught to read and write by a European missionary but finds it impossible to capture the performance of the village’s best storyteller in the new medium:

When Kokwa told the story, he didn’t merely use words; he used the sound of his voice, the movement of his hands, the light in his eyes. He told you the story with his whole body, and you understood it the same way. None of that was captured on paper; only the bare words could be written down. And reading just the words gave you only a hint of the experience of listening to Kokwa himself, as if one were licking the pot in which okra had been cooked instead of eating the okra itself.

In a sense, all literature is literature in translation, inchoate thoughts and feelings shoehorned into awkward-fitting nouns and verbs. It’s somehow comforting to know that before I even start, I’ve already failed! So now I can just get on with it.




Easier said than done, of course. There’s still that chasm between what could be and is, between the sublime and the devastatingly ordinary or downright bad, and the fear of not knowing the difference. Is it any solace to remember that even the greats also suffered dark nights of the soul? When Sergei Rachmaninoff’s first symphony was performed in 1897 in St. Petersburg, Russia, one powerful critic condemned its “broken rhythms” and “complete absence of themes.” (Supposedly the conductor was drunk.) Rachmaninoff sank into despair and didn’t write music for three years. Eventually, he turned to a neurologist-slash-hypnotist, who gently coached him into tackling tiny pieces at first, and then the movements of what would become 1901’s immortal Piano Concerto No. 2.

As the curator Lisa Le Feuvre has written, “There is a pleasure in failure, and its potential, too.” The 45-story skyscraper known as Torre David (Tower of David) was supposed to be the headquarters of a financial hub in Caracas, Venezuela, but the money ran out when the developer died and the country’s economy went under in the 1994 banking crisis. For years, the building was an empty shell, its rooftop helicopter pad forlornly awaiting the bankers who would never come. Then squatters moved into the concrete grid — lack of elevators and plumbing be damned — and transformed it into a small, self-sustaining city with a population of 3,000.

Iwan Baan

Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner’s documentary explores what life was like for the 750 families living in the abandoned 45-story office tower.


This wasn’t an Eden: The head of the “occupation” was a born-again ex-con whom many in the city believed was still running a violent gang. Terraces lacked railings and occasionally children fell to their death. But the squatters found ways to make a home out of the uninhabitable, pooling meagre funds to appoint guards at entrances and carrying buckets of water up 28 flights of unlit stairs. Mini bodegas sprang up, along with a beauty salon, an ad hoc video-game arcade and an unlicensed dentist’s office. Then, in 2014, the residents were evicted by the government; the tower stands empty once more. You can see something of the lives once led there in the 2012 book “Torre David: Informal Vertical Communities” and an accompanying 2013 documentary film by the architects Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, of the Caracas-based Urban-Think Tank, and the photographer Iwan Baan.

Now, on some level, all of this is distraction from the task at hand. There’s no getting around it: Writing is a white-knuckle business. In the 2009 novel “The Anthologist,” Nicholson Baker describes how the clearing of space around a poem exacts a promise of a high-wire act, and I sometimes think of it when staring down an empty page, because the (intentional) portentousness makes me laugh and take myself ever so slightly less seriously:

Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good. Here the magician will do his thing. Here’s the guy who’s going to eat razor blades. Or pour gasoline in his mouth and spout it out. Or lie on a bed of broken glass. … This is the blank white playing field of Eton.

Associated PressThe French stuntman Philippe Petit carries a balance pole as he walks across a tightrope suspended between New York City’s World Trade Center twin towers on Aug. 7, 1974.
The French stuntman Philippe Petit carries a balance pole as he walks across a tightrope suspended between New York City’s World Trade Center twin towers on Aug. 7, 1974.

It’s useful, then, to watch an actual high-wire act, as shown in James Marsh’s 2008 film “Man on Wire,” a documentary about the French funambule (tightrope walker) Philippe Petit and his dance across a cable illicitly strung between the towers of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan in 1974. He was a graffitist of the air, seemingly beyond fear; one misstep and — but how lucky we are, that we can just erase our terrible words and start over.