Newsweek has a back-page feature called “My Favorite Mistake” wherein celebrities share just that: their favorite mistake. Some of these are enlightening and amusing. Some are written by Nicholas Sparks. In the most recent issue, Sparks wrote that his favorite mistake is “when I start a novel before I’m ready to write the novel.”
Before we go any farther, we should say this: It might sound presumptuous for us, two unpublished authors who have both taken cracks at writing a book, to quibble with the advice of someone who has not only published books (plural), but whose books have also become New York Times bestsellers and been turned into movies and made their author tremendously wealthy and successful, such that his advice is sought for things like Newsweek’s “My Favorite Mistake” page. Us? We have not written a book. We have not sold the rights of our unwritten book to Hollywood. We are not on Newsweek‘s speed dial. So Nicholas Sparks clearly has the last laugh here. Nonetheless, we are going to proceed with the rest of this post.
Sparks writes about a book he started called Saying Good-Bye, which sounds very much like every other Nicholas Sparks novel (love triangles, melodrama, Italian men), except that he “couldn’t come up with an ending.” One of his main characters was dying but he couldn’t figure out what her dying wish would be.
What did Sparks do? “I hit up strangers in the street for an ending.”
What? You hit up strangers in the street for an ending? We suppose this is not unlike a Hollywood studio test screening a film before its general release — except, of course, in that case the film would actually be finished by that point. But what is Sparks saying here? Literally, that a stranger on the street could write a better ending to his book than he could.
What did those strangers tell Sparks when he asked them what their dying wish would be? Nothing valuable, Sparks says:
All their answers were too melodramatic or unbelievable.
Aha! So these people weren’t strangers, because they clearly recognized they were being asked to write the ending of a Nicholas Sparks novel.
But Sparks “still didn’t know the ending”:
It’s a strange thing, because most novels take me five months to write. If I’m four months in and only two thirds of the way through, there’s a problem. The writing becomes more challenging. You begin to dread the process of going to work. The words come very hard, if at all. You work for hours, and you eke out a few pages. Finally, in the last days, you’re not writing anything at all. You’re sitting at the keyboard for six hours — and nothing! You’re writing, but deleting everything you write.
Sparks wants us to believe two things about writing: 1) He’s good at it, and it comes easy to him. He can write a novel in five months! 2) It’s really, really hard, and even Nicholas Sparks can sometimes not do it.
What the paragraph above does not convey is any sense that Sparks writes because he loves to do it. He writes because he can. Except when he can’t, when it’s very hard (“The experience of writing a failed novel is painful,” Sparks tells us, adding “it’s a terrible period of time that I never wish to revisit”), and then he’s made the mistake of starting a novel before he’s ready to write the novel, whatever exactly he means by that.
What has Sparks learned from his “favorite mistake”?
Those [failed] novels taught me a few things. I have to know how the characters meet. I have to know what’s driving the story. I have to understand the conflict and how the store will end. If I don’t know those four things, I don’t start a novel anymore.
Contrast this to something the writer Curtis Sittenfeld said about Jennifer Egan: “Once at a reading I heard her say something I’ve thought of often since: that she wouldn’t want to start writing a book she knew from the outset she was definitely capable of pulling off.”
This second way — the Egan way — is fraught with peril. Taking on something, anything that promises the potential of failure requires courage. We are not a culture that likes to fail, and we require that our successful members (by which we often but not always mean “celebrities”) genuflect to failure but sanitize it for us. My favorite mistake was failing, but it was a terrible time I never wish to revisit. I never start anything now that I can’t succeed at.
That may be a formula for finishing books — again, Sparks clearly outranks us in that category — but is it really art? Is it anything to be celebrated? Is there any joy in creating (producing?) it, and any joy in receiving? Where is the mystery that comes when someone — if not the reader, then at least the author –discovers something unexpected along the way?
Something we cling to, as people who still one day hope to write a book, is that we’re simply in the early stages of failing, and that these will serve some greater purpose once we reach the end. Maybe that’s naive, or delusional. But anyone who says that his favorite failure is learning how not to fail seems to have wasted a golden opportunity to have actually learned something. If we all must fail — and evidence seems to suggest we must — we should salvage more from the clutches of failure than empty pieties. There’s got to be a better ending than that.