Failure is a four letter word. We fear it, we dread it, and we try to avoid it at all costs. It’s one of those sneaky words that writers tend to despise because we understand its power more than anyone; we know how many layers it carries, how much destruction it causes in its wake. We give it so much meaning, in fact, it paralyzes us. Why not, instead, commit this foul word to memory, stare it in the face, and run straight at it, helmet on? Why not laugh at its pathetic attempt to demean what we are worth? FAILURE, after all, only holds as much meaning as we assign to it. Don’t writers grasp the power of words better than anyone else?
How, then, must we cope with this ever-foul sense of failure? There are two skills we need to survive it:
ACCEPT WHEN YOUR CRAFT NEEDS WORK
This is really difficult sometimes because it involves balancing feedback from those who criticize your work, and listening to your intuition. Our ego makes us believe critical feedback is wrong, and that we just haven’t found the right audience yet. But in time and through lots of practice, we learn to discern the difference between all these voices and what’s good advice and bad. In time, we make good friends with humility–our best friend in writing–and discover the gems hidden within the harsh feedback or negative reviews. We accept that our craft needs work–and will always need work on some level.
I recently saw an article about a nanotechnologist named Jason Haaheim, who switched careers to become a timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. His view of failure is right on.
Jason says, “I think, for a lot of people – and that’s not just in orchestral music – but a lot of people in performing arts, acting, just anything like this. You start off with a desire to do this thing, this passion about some sort of art form. And yet you’re not skilled enough. Your craft does not evolve to the point you would be able to do it. So I think a defining experience for a lot of people who get into these creative fields is you have to really embrace failure. Frame it as constructive growth and be interested in that.”
Once we develop to the point of becoming published, our learning shouldn’t end—and it doesn’t. If it does, it means you aren’t challenging yourself enough as a creative. It means you’re too afraid of failure.
Curious how other authors regarded failure, I asked them to talk about their experiences:
“Failure stings at first, then hurts, then hurts some more. But when the hurt finally lets go, reflections begin and they are always deeper, more important than those brought by success. Failure makes me rethink my goals, make difficult decisions on what I will work on next. And then–as important as any insights to my own writerly condition–it makes me more forgiving, more thoughtful, more empathic.”—Eva Stachniak, international bestselling author of The Chosen Maiden
“I knew after being dropped from my first house I could either sulk or move forward. I chose to believe that just because I wasn’t a booming success with my first attempt in publishing (and really, who is?) doesn’t mean my career was over. I didn’t give up, and subsequently, a lot of better opportunities have come my way. In publishing, you only truly fail when you stop trying.”—Aimie K. Runyan, author of Daughter of the Night Sky
“I failed long enough and hard enough at getting published that I managed to debut into a fully developed world of social media where writers and readers can connect in ways that would have been unthinkable the year I got my MFA (which started with a 1, not a 2). I wouldn’t be a successful historical novelist if I hadn’t been a failed contemporary novelist first. I’m so glad I failed in all the ways I failed before, and I bet I’m not done failing. A writing career without failure is an unrealistic, even harmful, goal. The goal has to be learning and growing and knowing what to do with the opportunities you get when you get them. That’s when you really succeed.”—Greer Macallister, USA Today Bestselling author of Girl in the Disguise
“I have a hard time dealing with failure (who doesn’t?) I wrote and rewrote my novel about Monet so many times that my agent finally said, ‘I am afraid if the next read doesn’t soar, I’ll have to pass.’ I looked into my heart and saw that I had never written the novel as I wanted to write it, always following what others told me. I wrote it again in six months and she sold it within a month for a very good price. I try to remember that with my current book, which is struggling to find its strongest form and the right publisher, I remain the same divided person: half wanting to plunge forward, half wanting to hide. I try to ask myself each day which one is taking the lead! So far I am still going forward.”—Stephanie Cowell, author of Claude and Camille
“I received 82 rejection letters from agents in the course of 4 years. Guess what it made me feel each time? Exactly. I cried, wiped my tears off, bought more fiction writing books, borrowed more books from the library, and started to read and write again.” –Weina Dai Randel, author of The Moon in the Palace
DEVELOP YOUR OWN PHILOSOPHY OF FAILURE
As you can see by these authors’ words above, they got where they are—and will continue to achieve—because they dig deeply to remain connected with what drove them to write in the first place: a love of story. They will evolve to make their dreams happen. They accept failure as a matter of course, not as an evaluation of who they are as people, or a measure of what they deserve. They survive and often thrive, because they have developed their own philosophy of failure.
As for my philosophy of failure, I must admit it changes the longer I write and the longer I work with publishers. To begin, I believe every attempt to achieve that didn’t produce measurable positive results still gave me something that is more precious than anything tangible—it gave me experience. These experiences evolved into knowledge, and we all know knowledge is power. But let’s be more concrete about this. Let’s look at “failure” from a numbers standpoint. Writers are full of story ideas—loads of them. It’s impossible for publishers to buy everything we write, or to get on board with everything we love. There simply isn’t enough time or resources, or consumers for that matter. Therefore, everything we create won’t sell. This is why it’s imperative to WRITE ON, try new concepts, work on a new style or format. Challenge yourself. Keep going. Some ideas will strike a chord and some won’t.
Regardless of what happens with our books when they leave our desk, it’s our job as writers to keep developing stories that mean something to us on a deep, intangible level. It’s our job to explore and to push boundaries. We must weave our despair and angst and hope and joy into stories so others can relate to the characters that carry these messages. These are the stories that will succeed—and those that don’t succeed on a public level, feed our creative souls.
Writers write. It’s what we do. Failure is like death and taxes—all are a certainty. Failure wounds us, but that shouldn’t diminish our need to make sense of the world through words. Those wounds, instead, should make our need to create more powerful and urgent.
What is your philosophy of failure?