If you’ve been around this space for any length of time at all, you know I’ve talked quite a bit in this space about my struggles with depression, and how it often centers itself around my lack of success as a writer. Often I’ll become overwhelmed by an obsession with my own failures that sucks me into a spiral of darkness and self-loathing.
And the truth is I have had a fair number of “failures” in my life, particularly in my efforts as a writer. But in my days of calm when the clouds of depression aren’t casting their black shadows on my life, I can say that there is a great deal to be thankful for in failure.
Of course it goes without saying that no one wants to fail. No one wants to send out a manuscript and have it rejected. In our minds the perfect world would be filled with one success after another, triumph upon triumph, world without end. But the truth is there are real benefits to failure and defeat.
Failure builds…well most people would say character. Which is probably true, except “character” is a pretty difficult thing to pin down under one definition. So I’ll use my own squiffy words if its all the same to you. Failure builds thickness. Thickness of heart. Thickness of soul. Thickness of skin.
Cuts and scabs and blisters aren’t things anyone would wish for, but when they’ve healed, they leave behind tissue that is tougher and more resilient than it ever could have been before. Failure does the same for the soul. It thickens us up, gives us strength we didn’t have before.
But more than that, failure can be catalyst for innovation and creativity. Consider the plight of the failed writer for a moment. He’s written any number of stories that went nowhere commercially. Over and over he’s read the rejection form letters in his email inbox with a sinking heart. And yet, for some reason, he won’t give up. Maybe he can’t give up. Who can say?
Now consider his successful counterpart. She is the one who sold the first novel she ever wrote, hurtled to meteoric stardom in the matter of a few short months and raked in millions from the sales of her books.
Of these two, who is the one most likely to grow as a writer? Who is the one most likely to take risks, to try new things, to stretch their limits beyond what they’re fully comfortable with? Our successful example may very well find herself confined to the genre and style of fiction that won her stardom. She may consider branching out, trying new things, but before she does she must stop and consider: “What will my fans think?” “How will my public react?” “What if I fail?”
The failure on the other hand is unfettered by these worries. He knows exactly what will happen if he fails. He’s been there. He’s done that. He’s got the kitschy coffee mug.
Out of a hundred failures, what’s one more? Why not try something bold and original? Why not do something no one thinks will work? If falls flat on his face, who will be surprised?
And this, I believe, is the true grace of failure. As an “aspiring” writer, you literally have nothing to lose. Your maybe ten Twitter friends (Oh, sure, you’ve got lots more “followers” than that, but in my experience it’s only ten or so that really care) aren’t going to turn on you like ravenous piranha if you drop of a dud of a door-stopper on them. No one is going to stop you in the supermarket to eviscerate you for writing an entire novel in second-person future-tense.
And that makes you the most important thing in the literary community today. Because who’s going to be the one to break out with something inventive and groundbreaking, a book that through caution to the wind, pulls out all the stops, and charges ahead with wanton enthusiam?
A failure, that’s who. Someone who’s tried everything twice, and couldn’t quite make it work. Someone with absolutely nothing to lose.
This isn’t a call to flip the middle finger to the mainstream. This isn’t a screed against successful fiction writers. But it is a call to stop trying to do what’s cool and popular. It is an appeal to start writing freely and without fear.
Only when you learn to embrace the benefits of failure can you unlock your true potential for success. Only then can you become the writer you were meant to be.