Profiles In Failure

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-01-08 12:00:00 No comments

For every story I've written, I've probably contemplated and discarded a dozen others at least. One of those discards came back to mind recently, along with a better understanding of why I'd discarded it.

The story was to have been three dialogues between two friends, over the course of about as many days, who reunite after many years of estrangement. One of them has embraced a path of mysticism and esotericism, fond of grand and theatrical conceits. The other is the more humble and sober, more down-to-earth, but no less curious about life. (In a later iteration of this project, one was a modern-day warlock, the other a Zen practitioner.) They spend those three days trying to understand each other. They fail to understand, but they succeed in realizing they still care, that some things have nothing to do with worldviews and everything to do with giving a darn about your fellow human being.

I kicked this damn thing around for at least ten years, in one form or another, before finally giving up on it. Many parts of it were close to my own heart — if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you can tell why — but that by itself wasn't enough to give me confidence in my ability to do it justice. At the end of the day, I didn't want to rewrite My Dinner With Andre (or maybe Narcissus and Goldmund?) and pretend I hadn't, in fact, done just that.

Another reason I shelved the whole thing stemmed from deep changes, over those ten years, in the way I thought about how to embody an idea in a story. You can't just take the idea and push it out through a character's mouth, like those Play-Doh mold makers. Having people talk about an idea is not the same as a story actually being about an idea. You have to let them embody the concept. And sometimes that means taking away freedom from them, condemning them to be helpless to the things they are embodying. Cruel as this can seem, it is I think a more honest way to depict such things. Most people's words are not a good reflection of their worldview, and most worldviews are fragmented patchworks, not coherent philosophies. They — we — only make sense from the inside.

This inherent messiness clashed badly, fatally really, with the neat little lesson I had conjured up by way of these two strawmen. I couldn't say anything useful about them or their worldviews through such a tidy little construction. All I could do was have them stake out their respective turfs and lob ideas at each other. An honest story about two such diametrically opposed figures would not be that tidy. Either they would go their separate ways and that would be that, or they would rip out each others' throats.

One way I tried to make up for this was to force them to have to deal with each other — maybe have them in town because of a funeral for a mutual acquaintance, or some kind of convention, or what have you. But the underlying problem remained: what seemed like an interesting idea from afar turned out, up close, to be not very compelling. The bubble, once I attempted to close my hands around it, burst.

I thought the above story would be far more interesting than it ended up being, and I suspect that's because the things I believed to be there that would have attracted me didn't actually exist. Or, at the very least, that wasn't the right "container" for them. Or that I lacked a proper way to realize the whole concept without it feeling like it just recapped other, better work.

What makes for an interesting story? As with so many questions, the answer is "it depends". What is interesting to me may not be remotely interesting to you, and so the reasons different authors have for latching onto a given story is deeply personal. The more I delve into this, the more I have a better grasp on the things that really do interest me, instead of the things I only tell myself I'm interested in. That necessarily requires me to try some things and have them fail. How else am I gonna know?

Tags: creativity postmortem