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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 #1: Don’t!

Edison Refused to Fail – You Can Too

Thomas Edison’s observation that he had not failed, he’d found 10,0000 ways that didn’t work (or 1,000 or 700 depending on the source) is remembered because it is unexpected. Edison’s lesson from failure was to refuse to see it.

Most of us couldn’t endure finding even 100 ways not to do something. Most of us get the lesson from failure much faster than that, and the lesson is “Don’t!” But we think the “Don’t” means:

Don’t do that again.

Don’t try.

Don’t be stupid.

Don’t be naïve.

Don’t trust.

Don’t act.

Just don’t.

It’s not your fault that you get confused about what to say “Don’t” to. Your brain is hard-wired to avoid failure.

As I explained in another post, the lateral habenula reacts to potential failure by inhibiting the release of dopamine. Because dopamine is the feel-good, let’s-do-that-again neurotransmitter, failure literally feels bad.

And because dopamine is source of the energy, insight and desire you need to write, fear of failure obliterates motivation.

Your lateral habenula tells you “Don’t even think about it.” This is how your brain protects you from investing energy in behaviors that could be dangerous, ineffective or unsatisfying.

What Have You Mistaken For Failure?

Before you know you had the option to refuse failure, what made you think you failed as a writer? 

  • Rejection letters
  • Lack of interest in your work
  • Losing a grant or award
  • Not reaching a word count goal
  • Bad reviews
  • Criticism of what you write
  • Comparisons of your writing practice with other writers’ routines
  • Recognizing you don’t show up for writing the way you want?

To paraphrase Edison, these are not failures. You may have learned 30 ways not to write a query letter, 50 ways to not engage readers, 10 ways to push a committee to select someone else, and so on.

Not Yet Doesn’t Mean Never

The time to say “Don’t” is when you’re about to assume that an unexpected outcome or unwanted response is a failure. Negative comments don’t mean your writing has failed, they mean that piece of writing is not completely successful yet.

I love the word nearling coined by Igor Byttebier and Ramon Vullings in Creativity Today: 

“A nearling is a positive word for something new that was done with the right intentions, which has not – yet – led to the right result.”

Seeing your writing as evolving nearlings will keep your lateral habenula from putting the brakes on your motivation. Looking for where your writing is nearling and where it has a way to go to reach nearling status helps you avoid the either-or trap of success or failure. It’s also better reflects the reality of creation. 

Creativity Isn’t Either-Or

on off switch writer's blockSuccess or failure is a digital perspective – one or zero. Switches are digital; they’re either off or on.

Dials, on the other hand, are analog; there’s a multitude of possible positions in the circle. Writing is not digital, it’s analog.

Every draft is a new position on the dial, another approximation of our original vision. We hope each iteration moves the dial closer to “final” but there is no single right answer. We could tweak a piece of writing forever and never get it definitively “correct.” The trick is knowing when “not-yet-perfect” is good enough.

By the way, this is why many people don’t know how to give effective feedback. Thinking digitally, they look for rule violations and tell the writer where the writing has gone wrong, where it is off.

Digital thinking makes it impossible to see how writing can be nearling, close to what the writer intended, but not quite spot on. Describing how the writing affected us as readers is far more valuable in helping the writer get the piece closer still, maybe even close enough.

The number one lesson writers can gain from failure is:

Don’t recognize failure. Don’t think of writing in terms of failure or success. Look for nearlings and bringer them closer still.


Christophe D. Proulx, Okihide Hikosaka, and Roberto Malinow, “Reward Processing by the Lateral Habenula in Normal and Depressive Behaviors,” from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4305435/ accessed January 2016.

Kyra Bobinet, “The Power of Process,” January/February 2016, Experience Life, from https://experiencelife.com/article/the-power-of-process/ accessed January 2016.

Igor Byttebier and Ramon Vullings, Creativity TodayBIS Publishers April 2009.

Lobster Street Experts, “Nearling” from http://www.21lobsterstreet.com/site/nearling/ accessed January 2020.

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8 Comments on “Writing Failure Lesson #1: Don’t!”

  1. Laura Sommers March 15, 2016 at 10:20 am #

    Very nice. I agree. And now, for a different, hilarious take on Edison as a perfectionist… this video with Jason Sudeikis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YJa6TIHAgDY


    • rosannebane March 15, 2016 at 3:20 pm #

      Thanks for the link, Laura! I loved the video of Edison as perfectionist (and egotist).


  2. rachaelestout March 11, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    “You learned 30 ways to write a query letter.” -Perfect
    As writers we are often out hardest critic, remembering that doing something is making progress is important.
    Great post!


  3. Sara Matson March 11, 2016 at 9:34 am #

    Thank you for this. I found it really helpful, in terms of writing and of life. I love the word “nearling” and am going to add it to my vocabulary!



  1. Writing Failure Lesson #2: Feel it Fully | Bane of Your Resistance - February 19, 2020

    […] you develop a perspective like Thomas Edison’s that there is no failure, that you’re just discovering ways that don’t work on the way to finding what does work, […]


  2. Writing Failure Lesson #2: Feel it Fully | Bane of Your Resistance - March 18, 2016

    […] you develop your Edisonian perspective that there is no failure, you’re just discovering ways that don’t work on the way to finding what does work, […]


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