An Artist Who Fails … And Fails Yet Again

  • onDecember 18, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byKim Takhwan

What is so special about being a writer? From time to time, I get asked this question. It sounds like a run-of-the-mill question, but answering it isn’t easy. When I started off as a writer, I could afford to be evasive. But now that nearly twenty years have passed, I’ve come up with two answers to this question.

The first is that writers are artists who live within overlapping time periods. Anywhere from one year to five years, Kim Takhwan the writer criss-crosses the timeline of the year he is living in and that of the novel he is working on. In the mornings, he is in his study, striding across the era in which his novel is set; after lunch, he deals with the minute problems of his life in 2015. Humans can hope to live up to, say, a hundred years at most, so traveling to another age every time one sits down to write is a privilege only a writer enjoys. What’s more intriguing is the tension between these different time periods. Even if you’re fully aware of the differences between them, the events occurring in one timeline influence those in the other. While a writer is free to accept or reject that influence, he can’t help but be conscious of it.

The second answer is that writers are artists who taste failure every time they write. Naturally, a writer will leave no stone unturned to ensure her story is flawless on the drawing board, even before starting on the first draft. She’ll be busy refining the plot, making field trips to the places that form the backdrop of the story, interviewing experts, and reading related books and articles. The story born out of this process will look perfect, like the blueprint for a building. Yet, when she puts pen to paper, the story will invariably change. This change may be triggered by any one of the elements that make up the novel. Changes in the personality or the weight of the characters in the story are common; even places or timelines that form the backdrop of the story tend to change, not to mention the degree of conflict, which might strengthen or weaken. If nothing else, the weather, the sounds, or the wind’s direction may change.

And it doesn’t stop with a single change. A small change can lead to a chain reaction that forces the writer to touch up other parts of the story. Such changes often don’t allow for careful deliberation but instead arise with pressing urgency in the thick of writing. The writer is forced to leave behind the path he carefully surveyed, and tread on an unfamiliar path whose destination isn’t even clear at times.

When I was an aspiring novelist years ago, I’d be left exhausted by such vagaries. I’d resolve to prepare thoroughly for my next work, to write it from start to finish without making any changes. But never once did I complete a novel without reworking the story. No matter how thoroughly I prepared, I’d be forced every time to make changes in unexpected places; even if I tried to come up with ways to continue the story without going back and changing something, I’d have to admit defeat in the end. I’ve reached this stage in life after failing, and failing yet again, to stick to the story I had in mind at the outset.

After a decade of this arduous struggle, I’ve changed the way I think. Even if I turn the plot over and over again in my head before putting pen to paper, in the end, fiction is an art form in which a sentence invariably changes as it ends and moves on to the next. Like how you unfold a map and draw up detailed plans, and yet when you’re on the ground your trip doesn’t go ahead as planned.

I haven’t stopped making meticulous preparations for my novels. I prepare just as before, only now I wait for the moment when a need for a change will present itself. And when that moment arises, when I have to make revisions to the story, I’m no longer flustered or thrown into despair like before, but rather imagine how the story will unfold with this new adjustment. It’ll be a new story, entirely different from the one I pictured at the outset. Every so often, as I’m reading novels by my favorite authors, I wonder: At what point did this story change from the one the writer originally had in mind? Why did it need to change?

I’ve always counted endurance as one of the greatest gifts a writer can have. Having spent the last twenty years writing novels, I’ve now realized that quick reflexes are just as important. Fiction writing isn’t the only field where these qualities are a prerequisite; even in life, apart from the stamina needed to dutifully carry out one’s responsibilities every day, one also needs the ability to react quickly and wisely in order to tackle various problems that may arise anytime. Depicting the life of humans with endurance and quick reflexes by writing novels that also require these same qualities is a job in which joy and agony overlap. The readers who read my novels are also human, so the pain and suffering might become threefold. Therein lies the reason behind my choice for this essay’s title: “An Artist Who Fails … And Fails Yet Again.” 


by Kim Takhwan

Author's Profile

Kim Takhwan made his literary debut in 1996 with the novel A Love Story of Twelve Whales. Historical novels are his forte, with several of them being adapted for television and cinema, including How Rueful to Be Forgotten (2002); I, Hwang Jini (2002); Death by Fiction (2003); Hyecho (2008); The Immortal Yi Sun-sin (2004); and Russian Coffee (2009). His most recent novel is The Magician from Joseon (2015).