On a Failed Writing Project
by Kathryn Mockler from Issue #1
We always hear never-give-up stories after a writer or creator has achieved some commercial success like the recent revelations that it took Allan Scott 30 years to get The Queen’s Gambit made. While I admire Scott’s perseverance, he was in a position to achieve some amount of success as a Hollywood insider with a commercial track record.
We rarely hear stories about people who never give up when there isn’t a reward beyond the writing itself.
What I find demotivating about never-give-up stories is that they always focus on someone who has achieved external success — an award, critical acclaim, or popularity, which somehow affirms that their devotion, sacrifice, dedication to something they believed in was not in vain.
What does that make the rest of us? Suckers? Time wasters? Sticking with a project because one day your faith will be rewarded feels more like delusions of grandeur than inspiration. Might as well buy a lottery ticket.
What about not giving up when there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — when in all likelihood your passion project will never find its desired audience or outcome?
I have a project that I’ve spend most of my adult writing life on that has given me equal measures of fulfillment and heartache. This project is not destined for any kind of greatness in the material sense. Does that mean I should give up on it and, for that matter, what does giving up on it actually mean — to stop working on it or to stop seeking external validation?
The project is a feature-length screenplay called Piss Tank, a coming-of-age autofictional story set in the 1980s about a young girl growing up with an alcoholic parent. Piss Tank was my thesis project at the University of British Columbia. The script won a fellowship which led to it being optioned by a Toronto production company. At the age of 27, I thought I had made it, which now makes me laugh given that I was just at the beginning of a long and very painful journey.
The production company secured some development money, and I would begin what would become a four-year development process and a 19-year revision process. I rewrote that script more times than I can count. During the four years that the script was optioned, I got feedback from producers, story editors, directors, and funding bodies. The goal was to fix the premise, fix the characters, fix the structure. What started out as a deeply personal script about growing up in an alcoholic home ended up becoming a generic story cobbled together from a mishmash of well-intentioned but often gendered and, ultimately, unhelpful notes. It was this version that went up for production financing and didn’t get it. Although I was gravely disappointed, I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t like the script either.
So much writing advice focuses on writers learning how to “take” criticism, but it is equally important for writers to know when to ignore feedback and listen to their own voice, which is not the same thing as being defensive. Having worked with thousands of writers over the years as an editor, publisher, and professor, I have learned that the precious first instinct of a writer is often the best and should be handled with care when one is offering advice or feedback. One of the most helpful things a mentor or editor can do for a writer is help them gain the confidence to trust in their own work, to say no, that’s not the story I want to tell, that’s not my voice. This can begin with a simple question: what is the story you want to tell.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that a good deal of the feedback I received on Piss Tank was gendered. The protagonist’s mother wasn’t a “likeable” enough character. The story, which had a ten-year-old female protagonist, wasn’t “big” enough to warrant a feature film. The story is too “dark” and depressing. Some readers wanted the protagonist to be “saved” and have happy ending where her mother stopped drinking and the enablers around her did the right thing. But that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to show the lived reality of this experience, my experience. Society often fails children of alcoholics, they don’t get saved, and they have to find ways to survive in these toxic and often dangerous environments.
But the notes weren’t the problem. Everyone gets unhelpful notes. It’s the risk you take when you put your work out there. My response to the notes was the problem and my reason for writing was the problem. I was writing to please what others thought of me and what they thought my story should be instead of writing to make my story better for myself.
One of the lasting impacts for children of alcoholics is that they are often “wired to seek approval from others”.* It is certainly not lost on me that the trauma I was writing about — growing up in an alcoholic home — was the very thing that prevented me from writing about it well. I’ll never forget the time I submitted a terrible revision that attempted to appease all the notes I had been given and the first director attached to the project turned to me and said: “Kathryn, you have to stand up for your work”.
After the production company returned the option to me, I moved on to other film and poetry projects, but I never let Piss Tank completely go. It always haunted me as an unfinished and failed story. I’ve had many other abandoned scripts and manuscripts, but none that possessed me in this way, none of them filled me with this terrible sense of shame and disappointment. The failure wasn’t that it didn’t get made, but that I failed to tell my story the way I wanted it to be told. On and off every year for almost two decades, I went back to that script. I wrote some really awful drafts that still embarrass me to think about. Then one day, I was curious about the very first draft I wrote at UBC, the one that won the fellowship and got the production company interested in the first place. I no longer had a copy, so I requested it from the university.
Reading the script as a more experienced writer, I was pleasantly surprised. I saw what was good about it. It wasn’t a perfect script, and it still needed work, but it had my voice in there — the very thing that I had stamped out in the endless revisions and people pleasing.
I took that draft and decided to rewrite the script according to the story I wanted to tell — the story of a child living with an alcoholic who has to go on living with an alcoholic. So many readers had been focused on the alcoholic mother. Just like in life everything revolved around the alcoholic, but I wanted to write a story about the child who is impacted and what life is like for her.
I started the first draft in 1997 and finished the final draft in 2020. Nothing I’ve worked on has been as hard or as meaningful. Piss Tank is no longer a failed project that fills me with shame, regret, and doubt. I finally told the story I wanted to tell to the best of my ability, and for me there is nothing more satisfying than that. And now I can finally put this project to rest.
*American Addition Centers. Children of Alcoholics. Updated: July 2, 2020
Kathryn Mockler is the author of five books of poetry and several short films and experimental videos. She’s the publisher of Watch Your Head, an online journal devoted to climate justice and the climate crisis and Send My Love to Anyone, a newsletter on all things writing. She is the editor of the print anthology Watch Your Head: Writers & Artists Respond to the Climate Crisis(Coach House Books, 2020) and her debut story collection is forthcoming with Book*hug in 2023.
Issue #1 of Send My Love to Anyone
Micro Interview with Farzana Doctor
How to Meet a Writing Deadline by Jessica Johnson
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