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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

For Writers, Failure Is the Only Option

writer isWriting is hard. You’re going to fail. At first.

With luck, you’ll fail again. With a little luck, persistence and a whole lot of hard work, you’ll fail again and again until you transform a series of failures into something that satisfies you.

Failure is the only option for writers. The only alternative to a making series of failures that gradually approach what you set out to do is the ultimate failure — the failure to try at all.

You’re going to make mistakes – some minor, some major. Depending on which meme you look at, there are 7 amateur, 10 fatal, 23 common or 100 avoidable mistakes that are going to kill your first chapter, drive your editor crazy or prove you’re a worthless wanna-be.

writing mistakesTrying to be perfect won’t help; you will make mistakes. The fact that everyone else makes mistakes probably won’t make your mistakes easier to accept. Around the Writer’s Block mentions “gamma rays” where it should say “gamma waves.” I can laugh about it now, but I cringed the first time, okay honestly the first fifteen times, I saw it.

You can’t let perfectionism get in the way – well actually, you can. I let it get in my way for years. It’s just not effective or satisfying to let it get in your way. I truly wish I’d been more vulnerable, taken more risks, made more mistakes, fallen on my face a lot more often earlier in my career. But with luck and persistence, I can do that now.

And even though mistakes are a certainty, you have to be as professional and polished as you can WHEN you send your work out. Before then, messy, incomplete, inaccurate, awkward and all the other things you don’t want your writing to be is just fine. It’s part of the process.

writing is frustrating memeThat’s another reason writing is hard – the process is messy. It’s necessarily convoluted – creativity is never efficient.

The process is mysterious and frustrating at times because writing requires intuiting what the non-verbal, metaphorical, image-based part of your cortex wants to express. Ideas seem to appear out of nowhere because they appear when your conscious mind finally gets what the non-conscious mind has been shouting for days, metaphorically speaking of course.

Every draft is a messy approximation of what you wanted to write. You must revise and rewrite. And once you start revising, you have to guess when to stop because you could revise endlessly. At some point, you have to call it done, even though it never is.

You’re going to have false starts – ideas that don’t pan out, drafts that don’t go anywhere, snippets you never quite figure out what to do with, tantalizing images that appear when you can’t write them down only to disappear when you could write if only you could remember, haunting you forever with what might have been.

And you never know when to call it a false start and move on and when to keep experimenting and playing with it.

You’re going to have brilliant insights and mediocre clichéd ideas and some stinky brain farts. The trick is you won’t know what you’ve got at first. You have to risk showing your potentially stinky, clichéd ideas to others to find out. And even then, you can’t be sure because sometimes advisors with the best intentions make mistakes and give misdirected advice.

art of racing in rainIn my graduate program, one of my mentors who I deeply respected told me point-blank that a serious piece of fiction simply could not have a dog as the narrator. Good thing she didn’t tell Garth Stein that when he was first playing around with the idea that became The Art of Racing in the Rain. Even better thing is that Garth Stein didn’t listen when someone told him it was a SBD (silent, but deadly) fart of an idea as I’m sure many people did.

You’re going flub up, make a mess, embarrass yourself. In public. In print. On the internet where nothing bad ever really disappears, no matter how much you try to delete it. You’ll have nights when you’ll lie awake, torturing yourself with thoughts of “Oh my God! Why did I do that?”

Writing is, in short, a guaranteed way to fail.

writing is hardWhy am I writing about this here? Because, as Eric Maisel warns in “The Power of Failure,” an essay in The Soul of Creativity, if writers don’t talk openly about failure, it’s devastating when we fail.

“If we do not understand that failure, mistakes, missteps, wrong turns, bad ideas, shoddy workmanship, half-baked theories, and other sad events are part of the process, if we romanticize the process and make believe that creativity comes with a happy face, then when we encounter our own rotten work we will be forced to conclude that we do not have what it takes. But we have what it takes. What it takes is learning and recovering from our mistakes.”

The only logical question at this point seems to be “How do we learn and recover?” But before we can ask the logical question, we have to acknowledge the emotional one, “So why on earth do we write?”

I’ll wax poetic (or ramble on, depending on your perspective) about that in my next post. Until then, ask yourself why you write as a genuine (i.e. not rhetorical) question. Please share your responses in a comment.

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6 Comments on “For Writers, Failure Is the Only Option”

  1. Joel D Canfield February 25, 2016 at 5:49 pm #

    The list is long, but at the top is that I write to discover, or confirm, what I believe.



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