Reflections On A Failed Writing Experiment


I had this idea that, over spring break, I would structure my day so that everything but four hours (one for running, three free hours) would be for writing. In my first draft of this post I had this elaborate and painfully academic explanation for why I was doing it, something to do with the American Dream and the Protestant work ethic and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. But really it was much simpler than that. It all came from finals season last semester, when I was putting the finishing touches on a paper after ten uninterrupted hours of work, when I though You know, if I spent as much time over summer break working on writing fiction as I do during the school year on school work, I’d have published a novel by now.

That’s all I really wanted. To see the name John S. Osler III on the cover of a book on the shelf of a bookstore, preferably underneath some cool cover art and laudatory quotes from top critics. To know that, even if I was hit by a car and died tomorrow, at least I’d have a novel to my name, at least I would have accomplished something with more staying power than memories.

If committing myself to my writing like it’s a real job (God willing some day it will be) was the price I had to pay to accomplish that, then so be it.

My original plan was to write the blog post as a sort of journal, explaining what I had accomplished and how I was feeling each day of my writing regiment. That plan fell apart instantly, since I failed to keep with the schedule for a single day.

There were a couple factors that accounted for my immediate failure. I was bone tired when I got home, and after a week of mid-semester exams I was sick of the written word in all its forms. Moreover, I was with my family for the first time in two months, and I wasn’t ready to spend all the time I could be spending with them locked in my room reading, writing, and editing.

But more than anything else, life got in the way. Sometimes it was mundane: my brother wanted me to play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time with him or my mom insisted I go get a haircut, but sometimes something more important than writing got in the way. The first day that I had planned to implement the schedule, my dad called me up and asked me to take the bus into the city to meet with a non-violent first time offender who he had helped petition for clemency and the journalist who connected the two of them. I spent the afternoon hearing about the ex-prisoner’s life, how he had joined the Latin King’s pee-wee division when he was eleven years old, how he had gone through with the drug deal that would eventually lead to his arrest when he knew he was being followed, how he had read his first book while in prison and had used reading to deal with the horrors of solitary confinement.

My first impulse was that learning about this life so different from my own would make me a more well rounded writer, that maybe I could even use some elements from his life as inspiration for a story someday. In retrospect, thinking about everything in how it relates to me and my writing is a pretty warped outlook on the world. Hearing about what this guy had gone through, the life my dad had worked so hard to bring back into society, that’s important in its own right.

That explains half of why my experiment failed: I assumed that I could write without taking time to live life. The other half is really just a variation on that; I assumed my writing could exist without life.

There’s this riddle or paradox I’ve heard used to describe seven or eight different phenomena (and as a plot point in the movie Ex-Machina). There is a woman who knows everything there is to know about color, how the eye takes in electromagnetic wavelengths, transmits them to the brain, and interprets them as color. But she understands it only in theory, she herself lives in a black and white room (or, in other versions, lives in total darkness). The question is, does she learn anything when she steps out into the world and sees color for the first time?

You can become a master statistician understanding it only in theory, or a master biologist or a master chemist. I’d even go so far as to say a master musician (although someone who actually knows something about music would probably disagree). But you can’t be a writer spending your whole life in a library. If there’s no experience, then you’re just reusing what you’ve read, maybe combining the old but never really making something new, something based on what you’ve personally felt. That’s what I felt like I was doing on the one day I actually stuck to the schedule, putting words together in the same way I’d put numbers together when solving a math problem. Frustrated and bored, I gave up and looked through something I’d written in ninth grade instead. The prose was terrible (when I could understand it through all the spelling errors), the dialogue didn’t sound like anything an actual human person would say, and the plot was simultaneously ludicrous and dull. But under all that was a memory, simple and pure, of waiting around for a cross country meet to start, being worried but at the same time at ease because I was surrounded by friends and even if I failed I would be participating in something larger than myself, and that in itself was rewarding. That authenticity, it was something as important as character or plot or effective language, and it was what I had missed.

I’m all for treating writing like a real job, and maybe some day when it is, scheduling my day around it will make sense. But in my rush to make myself a better writer I forgot that life sustains writing, and that life is important in and of itself. And, even with my half-assed attempt to get my literary work done, I still did pretty well for myself. I finished a 14,000 word short story, started editing a novella and a play, read all the submissions for Inklette thus far, and got through two novels. Maybe not a monumental achievement, but I’m happy with it for now.


JOHN S. OSLER III is a freshman at Grinnell College. He has written over two hundred satirical articles for his underground newspaper The Southern View, and a few for his high school’s legitimate newspaper, Zephyrus, on the side. He has published short stories in the Grinnell Underground Magazine, Sprout Magazine, The Phosphene Journal, Moledro Magazine, and Random Sample Review.