Are you prepared to make a million mistakes? How repeated failure is necessary to improve your writing skills.

We need to choose our words carefully when we talk to ourselves. Choices often affect responses to situations and feelings. We condition the brain to behave in a certain way and this can result in a profound effect like sitting back when trying to write and saying, ‘I just can’t do this.’ or ‘I’m so useless’ or even, ‘I give up.’ These exhortations soon cement into beliefs. Does this sound familiar?


In a book entitled ‘Metaphors We Live By’ the Lakoff and Johnson discuss words we use to describe an argument; ‘battle, fight my corner, defend, parry, shoot down in flames, destroy’. A pattern is emerging. We tend to see discussion as adversarial and as a consequence there will be a winner or loser. Imagine then if we were to describe an argument in the terminology of dance: ‘we tangoed through a few ideas, in the end he pirouetted as he began to understand these opportunities we were suggesting, we swirled around the dance floor.’ Can you see the difference? Already a pirouette is much more graceful than a u-turn and a tango suggests working together in an intense rhythm which is feisty and passionate. Far more enjoyable than becoming entrenched and having to defend at all costs.


Therefore how I describe myself, my approach to work, attitude to writing etc. probably requires an overhaul. I have been considering this of late while reading ‘The Decisive Moment’ by Jonah Lehrer. It’s a text outlining how the brain functions and has shed light on areas of my writing life. To give you an idea he discusses an experiment where primary school children are given a test. At the end of it one half of the cohort are told how smart they were and the other half, how hard they must have worked to gain their score. In the long term the second set of children chose to sit harder tests when given the choice. They also wanted to see papers of students who had done better, to aid progress; they were also prepared to take more risks in their thinking. In addition, future scores improved, on average by 30%, whereas the smart guys were not interested in moving on and ultimately dropped by 20%.


This attacks this whole ‘genius’ thing where we face a sheet of paper, decide our first sentence is nothing like Dickens’ and simply give up. What has struck me more forcibly than anything while reading Lehrer is how success (however you choose to measure this) comes from failure, returning to the drawing board, learning from the mistakes, re-working, revising then moving on again. The chess computer Deep Blue has become a formidable opponent simply because of its capacity to review error comprehensively after making literally millions of mistakes and this, dear reader is what we need to do (gulp).


We need strength and a positive attitude to deal with critics, whether they come from outside or are internal. My suggestion is we change the vocabulary. Whenever someone says, ‘Can I offer a criticism?’ my instinct is to say no; I can feel the fake smile aching as I say, ‘sure.’ I know this is not an attractive quality and so was thinking about how the same question could be framed without eliciting that negative response.


I wondered how I might feel if someone said, ‘Can I offer you a building block?’ I was quite taken with this initially, thinking, ‘Well, it’s something that will help me build.’ But then it seemed to suggest some egocentric construction, that’s going upwards and seemed finite somehow.’ So I dismissed that and reviewed the idea of stepping stones. ‘Can I offer you a stepping stone?’ That felt less threatening and may assist me in making progress and crossing over to the next leg of my journey. A stone itself has been shaped naturally and importantly it’s not man made.


I had often wondered why I was particularly drawn to Beckett’s adage, ‘Fail, fail again, fail better.’ Friends had suggested it seemed rather a depressing thing to have pinned above my desk. Now I know, apparently, the most effective way to improve is to focus on your mistakes. As Lehrer states, ‘Expertise is simply the wisdom that emerges from cellular error. Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged. On the contrary they should be cultivated and carefully investigated. …..unless you have experienced the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts to this painstaking process.’ Yet writing boot camps, retreat, groups, courses and all manner of meetings with like-minded people can make the whole process more pleasurable and just think, other writers are going through exactly the same process.


Vivienne Neale is a full-time freelance writer who also runs a writing retreat in Portugal and is a graduate from the MA programme in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Lehrer, J – The Decisive Moment – How The Brain Makes Up Its Mind Canongate 2009

Lakoff, G & Johnson, M – Metaphors We Live By University Of Chicago Press 1981