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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 #2: Feel it Fully

happy people 3 canstockphoto5970844As 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, you’ll probably feel relief.

Thank God, I don’t have to worry about failing any more.

You might try to talk yourself into false cheer. Alright! Good for me. I’ve found the 56th way a query letter doesn’t work. Hooray?

As valuable as it is to stop seeing failure (Writing Failure Lesson #1: Don’t!), it won’t be long until you realize that there’s a significant difference between inventing the light bulb and writing. Light bulbs are digital – they’re either on or they’re off, and when they’re on, they’re on for everyone in the room.

lightbulb value of failure canstockphoto20582474 (2)But writing is analog – there’s a continuum from ineffective to okay to powerfully effective, and where a piece of writing falls in the continuum is a matter of both the quality of the writing AND the preferences and personality of each reader.

Even when a piece of writing is “on” for one reader, it can be “off” for another. In other words, two people can read the same page by the light of the same light bulb and have two very different experiences. One reader can love the writing and the other be indifferent or disapproving.

It’s not clear whether you’ve found the 56th way the query letter doesn’t work or the 56th agent the query doesn’t work for. If it’s the 56th way the query doesn’t work, you need to rewrite the query. Again. If it’s the 56th agent, you need to find another 15 to 20 agents to approach.

Edison’s promise that there is no real failure can free writers from the self-doubt and despair of seeing our inevitable missteps as failures. But it can’t free us from the rest of the broad range of emotions that come with realizing we’ve found another way it doesn’t work. emotion wheel

Hopefully, you’ll feel mild sadness followed by the resolve to try again. But there will be times when the emotions will be intense. What intense emotions have you felt about “not there yet” reactions to your writing?

  • Is it disappointment that something you wanted and worked so hard for isn’t going to happen?
  • Is it shame that you let yourself and maybe others down?
  • Is the sinking self-doubt and embarrassment that you let yourself be vulnerable in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people?
  • Is it fear that you’ve lost something vital and you’ll never have a chance like this again?
  • Is it dread that you can’t go on from here?

Whatever mix of emotions come up, let yourself feel them completely. You might want to try to deny emotions or shrug them off, but that will just get you stuck. You can’t decide not to feel what you feel because the emotional brain is faster than the logical brain.

emotionsEmotions move – the word ‘motion’ is the biggest part of ‘emotion.’ The fastest way to get to the other side of an uncomfortable emotion is to surrender to it, feel it fully and let it move through you. Find a safe place and a safe person to be vulnerable with. Admit the emotion, even exaggerate it and give it physical expression. Let yourself whine and wail or shout and stomp or whatever.

The emotion will pass. After it passes through you, notice where it came from. Disappointment comes from expectation. Shame comes from judgment. Fear comes from instinct.

We’ll talk about what to do with expectation, judgment and instinct in the next post, Writing Failure Lesson #3.

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