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Killing the Butterfly: Facing Failure on the Page

Ann Patchett has this wonderful analogy that compares the writing process to murdering a butterfly. I heard her share this in person years ago at one of her events, and then I read about it in greater detail in The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life. As she tells it, an unwritten novel lives in her mind as “a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.”

That beauty dissipates, Patchett explains, the moment she actually starts writing. The mere attempt to transform her literary dream onto the page changes everything:

. . . I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down on my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.

In my case, as someone who’s drafted a few novels that didn’t pan out, a “dry husk” doesn’t actually sound so bad. I’d say that my earliest novel attempts amounted to no more than a scattering of iridescent dust from the butterfly’s wing.

But not this novel, I tell myself. The novel I’m working on now is different. I believe that wholeheartedly, and not just because I’m more experienced and have, perhaps, finally hit my stride. I believe it because to chase that elusive butterfly—and not only chase it but knowingly kill it—is my only option. I believe it because if this novel will ever have a chance to survive, I have to continue crushing my dream in my own fist.

I thought of Patchett’s butterfly analogy recently when I watched Ta-Nehisi Coates offer writing advice in this Atlantic video. While Patchett likens the dream-novel to a butterfly, for Coates, it’s music. “It’s as though you have a certain music in your head, and trying to get that music out on the page is just absolute hell,” he says. “And so you fail.”

Failure is so deeply ingrained in the process, Coates suggests, that fulfilling your original vision only partially—“at least maybe seventy percent”—is a victory. He explains:

“You try to go from really bad to okay to acceptable. And then you know you’ve done your job. You never really get—I never really get—to that perfect thing that was in my head. So I always consider the entire process is about failure. I really, really do.”

Dead butterflies and discordant music aside, it’s not my intention to use this space to be negative about the writing process. (Although I am, admittedly, a writer who teaches an entire workshop focusing on literary rejection, so maybe I’m past the point of positivity.) Instead, I think there’s something to say for persevering through that failure, to look at your mangled butterfly or listen to your disastrous music and say, “To hell with it. I’m going to continue anyway.” As Coates points out, “the path is so tough, and you get beat up so much” that many writers quit before they can reach even that seventy-percent threshold. It is the writers who carry on despite their failure who will make it anywhere at all.

Which is why I’m deep in novel revisions right now, and why I know I’ll keep going even as I marvel at how different my work looks on the page compared to how I see it in my head. Or as Patchett puts it in The Getaway Car: “Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words.”