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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.

Writing Failure Lesson #3: Rewrite the Story

failure leads to success Michael JordonThomas Edison’s genius was partially his ability to rewrite the story. When everyone else said he’d failed 700 times, he had the audacity to claim he hadn’t failed 700 times, he hadn’t even failed once; he had, in fact, successfully found 700 ways that wouldn’t work on his way to ultimate success.

Writers need this kind of audacity to rewrite the stories we tell ourselves about the significance of finding another way that doesn’t work, aka, the significance of failure.

What stories have you told yourself before you realized you’d found “another way it doesn’t work”? How could those stories set you up for disappointment, shame, fear or another unpleasant emotions?

  • I have a really good feeling about this agent. She represents work like mine, she’ll appreciate my style. I’m really looking forward to working with her. This could be the start of fabulous new opportunities. I wonder what editors she’ll send my proposal to. Maybe she can get a bidding war going and I’ll get a deliciously big advance.
  • The editor is going to love this. I’ve studied the magazine, I know the audience and the writers’ guidelines and my piece is perfect.
  • I’ve got a good shot at winning this award (or grant or application). All I can do is my best. If I try hard enough and I’m good enough, something’s got to come through for me.

There is nothing wrong with any of these stories. You have to be passionate and enthusiastic. Why would you send something to an agent, editor or contest if you didn’t think you had a chance?

And there’s nothing wrong with feeling sad, disappointed, embarrassed, jealous, angry, confused or any other emotion when we don’t get the results we want.

We just can’t stop there. We need to learn from the experience, make adjustments and try again.

Unfortunately, we get often trapped in the stories we tell ourselves.

Stuck in the Old Story

loop canstockphoto20863279Instead of letting an emotion go, we repeat it, looping through the inner dialogue that interferes with our ability and willingness to move on.

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor has no doubts that sustaining an emotion is a choice, not something that just happens. She writes in My Stroke of Insight:

“My anger response, for example, is a programmed response that can be set off automatically. Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run.”

On the other hand, neurologist Joseph LeDoux observes in The Emotional Brain, that once aroused, the limbic system can create “self-perpetuating, vicious cycles of emotional reactivity.” He writes:

“Arousal helps lock you into the emotional state you are in [when the arousal begins]. This can be very useful (you don’t want to get distracted when you are in danger), but can also be an annoyance (once the fear system is turned on, it’s hard to turn it off – this is the nature of anxiety.)”

LeDoux’s research suggests that some emotions can persist without conscious choice longer than 90 seconds. But I agree with Taylor that at some point continuing to stew in an emotion is the result of choosing to run that circuit, or to repeat a story about how you’ve been wronged or done something stupid or shoulda, coulda, woulda.

Fear is transitory; anxiety is chronic. With the exception of PTSD and other severe anxiety disorders resulting from recurrent trauma that makes the limbic system over-reactive and habituated to a near-constant state of fear arousal, anxiety is often the result of asking “what if” questions.

too many questions canstockphoto12825292Any of these sound familiar: what if everyone hates my writing, what if I’m just fooling myself, what if I don’t have what it takes?

This type of what if isn’t really questions; they’re just a disguise for telling ourselves we are unsafe, even when there is no present danger and we are, in fact, in that moment, safe. They are the story we tell to keep ourselves stuck in anxiety. And anxiety of course is a sure route to writer’s block and resistance.

What stories do you get stuck in? What stories interfere with your ability to move on from “finding another way that doesn’t work” to finding a way that does work?

  • I can’t believe I lost and that so-and-so won. Who am I kidding? I never had a chance. What if I never win? I lost because I’m a loser and that’s all I’ve ever be.
  • Why are they publishing crap instead of my stuff; my stuff is good. Isn’t it? What if it isn’t? What if I’m writing crap and I can’t even see it? What if everyone thinks I’m a hack?
  • What if I never get another chance? I must be crazy to keep putting myself out there just to collect more rejections.
  • Better safe than sorry. I’ll just run this by my writer’s group one more time or take another class before I send it anywhere.
  • The system is rigged. Only insiders have a chance. I didn’t go to a prestigious MFA program, so I don’t have the connections you have to have. No one is ever going to notice my work.

There’s nothing wrong with you for telling yourself these stories; undoubtedly you were taught, perhaps by your family or your community or culture, to tell this type of story.

There’s nothing wrong with you, but there is everything wrong with continuing to tell yourself these stories. It’s time for a rewrite.

How to Rewrite Your “Failure” Story

erase roadblockLike any rewrite, you need to practice discernment (seeing what’s there), not judgment (assigning value to what’s there).

Start your rewrite by identifying and eliminating the lies, fallacies and unfounded conclusions. (Long-time readers will recognize this as Saboteur talk.)

For example, losing one contest or even 100 contests does not make you a loser. Maybe you lost a grant because the judges were looking for something else. That doesn’t make your writing bad or inferior to the winning entry, it just means the judges weren’t looking for what you were offering.

Maybe going to a well-known MFA program could help. If you think not having an MFA limits you, get one. But it’s not a requirement. Plenty of writers achieve their goals without a degree.

Always playing it safe means you keep yourself from finding the ways that won’t work. The truth is, the more chances you take, the more chance you have of finding what will work.

Any story that makes you miserable, that deflates your confidence, that makes harder for you to carry on needs to be rewritten. Lucky for you, you’re a writer. You know how to rewrite.

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2 Comments on “Writing Failure Lesson #3: Rewrite the Story”

  1. Joel D Canfield March 25, 2016 at 6:55 am #

    This one’s getting shared far and wide. And kept near my writing computer.


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