Tag Archives: failure

On the Benefits of Failure

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.

The Gentle Art of Letting Go

I was ten years old when I met Claws. I say met, because, when it comes to cats, ownership is a tenuous concept. I remember I was sick that day when one of the ladies from our church came over with a scraggly white kitten she had found by the side of the road. I remember how we kept him in the garage for the first few weeks we had him, and I would rush out there in the mornings and pick him up out of his box and he would dig his tiny little claws into my hand.

We had some good times together. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while he sat on the couch. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while he batted his toys around. Sometimes he would stare at me with disdain while I whispered my darkest secrets into his pointy ears.

I loved that cat. I really did. But then one day he came home from a cat fight with his nose mangled to a bloody pulp. Didn’t think much of it at first, because, come on, he was a cat. I’d have been more worried if he wasn’t fighting.

But over the next few weeks the wound didn’t heal. Instead it started to fester, cracking and bleeding whenever he scratched at it. And when we finally took him to the vet the news was worse than I could have imagined. Skin cancer. I didn’t even know that cats could get skin cancer.

That was it. There was nothing they could do; nothing we could afford at least. So we had to put him down.

I am not a sentimental man. It’s not so much that I don’t like feelings, as I just don’t seem to have as many as some other people. But on that day, when I scratched Claws’s ears for the last time, when I hugged him and told him what a good cat he had been, when they took him away and closed the door, I bawled like a baby.

That’s the story. And here’s the point.

Sometimes you have to learn to let things go. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to fix it or make it better. Sometimes you have to learn to move on. And this is a thing we need to learn, not only as human beings, but more specifically as writers.

That story you’ve worked on for years, trying and failing to root out the causes of its failings? There’s nothing wrong with editing, but there comes a point where you might have to consider very carefully whether pressing forward is really worth the time you’re investing in it.

And with stories it’s hard. It’s hard because you’ve built this world, nurtured these characters, shaped these events like a microcosmic god, you’ve already invested so much of yourself into it that there’s a sense that if you give up on this you’re giving up on yourself. You say, “Think of all the time I’ve invested in this. It’s just around the corner, I know it is, just one more re-outline, just one more scene change and it’ll be right.” And so the story lurches on, a poor pathetic undead thing, forced to continue its agonized existence by the sheer force of your will.

Here’s the thing: sometimes you fail. It hurts to admit, but sometimes that story just isn’t very good. I had to face this recently with one of my own stories. It was the first book I had ever written, and I kept going back to it year after year thinking I could salvage it somehow. But last month I finally I realized the flaws in the narrative were just too deep to fix. I had to let it go.

But it isn’t a total loss. That story was the first step on a journey. And while I’m not yet the writer I want to be, I’m a whole heck of a lot better than the writer I used to be. And the stories I’m going to write are better than the stories I have written.

We fail, yes, but in failing we can learn. We can grow. But only if we can learn to accept failure for what it is: an opportunity to learn.

Pondering Productivity

I don’t know what productivity is anymore.

It used to be I had measurable, easily quantified goals for my days. Write one thousand words, edit ten pages, finish building my death ray. You know, easy stuff like that.

Now I’m realizing that the things that matter most in life aren’t something you can really put a “percentage complete” meter on. The task “mold boys into respectable and stable members of society” doesn’t exactly have a sixteen step instruction guide with it. Ditto the objective “strengthen relationship with wife.”

This was the conundrum I found myself facing last Saturday tramping through the woods with the foster kids. I kept thinking to myself, “This feels too much like fun. Fun is bad right? I mean not bad exactly, but it doesn’t go anywhere, right? On the other hand, I do want to give these kids a thirst for something beyond the confines of a TV screen and- Oh look, a deer track!”

As you may have gathered my thoughts tend to ramble. But it’s hard not to feel guilty sometimes. It’s hard not to think, “I should be writing now instead of lying in bed with my wife just talking.” But the truth is, I’m pretty sure “lying in bed just talking” is the nobler of the two pursuits.

I’ve heard it said before that no one lying on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office, but I’m not sure that’s true, at least not in spirit. Because I can imagine lying on my deathbed, looking back over my life, wishing I had accomplished more with it.

And so, I find my mind once again returning to that seemingly ever-present theme of balance. Writing is a good thing. So is mowing the yard, or fixing the leaking sink. But I’m finding the most important tasks in life are the ones you never quite get to mark off as “complete”. Building a good relationship with my God and my family is something that’s going to take effort on my part every day for the rest of my life. And I have to continue to remind myself that those moments when it seems like I’m not “accomplishing” anything may be the most productive moments in my life.

The Dream

It seems to be a staple of staple of our culture that we value those people who pursue their dreams, who throw caution to the wind and risk everything to achieve something they’ve always yearned for. These kinds of people scoff at the question “How are you going to make a living at it?” and jeer at the pronouncement “There’s no money in it for you.” And we love them for it. We watch movies about them, we listen to them on television talk shows and secretly we wish that we had the courage to do what they have done.But is this the standard we should try to live up to? There’s a problem with our vision of these people, a fundamental bias that is all too easy to overlook in the way we think about them. The dreamers we know about are always successful. Of course they are; how would we know their names otherwise?

But how many more stories are there about people who followed their dreams and failed? I don’t even know how you would objectively measure something like that, but tonight I heard at least one such story. A man came by the place I work and told the story of his daughter who went to college and studied art only to find that when she emerged with a degree in her hand and passion in her heart only to find that the warnings that “there’s no money in it,” were right on target. She couldn’t make money as an artist. Today she supports herself by teaching art: certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but hardly the dream I imagine she had when she chose her career path.

This issue is more than academic for me. I have a dream too, an improbable dream, but a dream that burns in my heart as fervently as any star burns in the heavens. I want to be a writer. A real writer, with an agent, and books with my name on them on the shelves at Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million. A writer who can make enough money to comfortably live out the rest of his life doing even more writing. The problem is I know plenty of writers who haven’t succeeded, poor souls reduced to peddling their self-published books at local art fairs, and on obscure websites that try to look professional, but instead end up looking pathetic. These are men and women with a dream that never came true. Every day they work at their mundane job, and every night they go home to their writing. Their Dream. And though they are consumed by the fire of their passion, the flame gives them no heat. They are painfully aware of the lie that they are telling themselves.

And I am one of them.Am I wasting my time? I have promised myself that I will keep writing till I die even if none of my books sees the light of day, but the truth is that I desperately yearn to be read. Every time I step into the bookstore there is a part of me that aches to see my name on printed on the cover of one of those books. And I have to wonder…how long do I keep dreaming? How long do I close my eyes to the bitter reality of failure? How long until I give up?

And yet, even as I write this, I remember the deeper more important truth. I cannot give up. I love writing. It is as much a part of who I am as the air I breathe, and without it, some part of me would surely perish.Even if I go to the grave a fool, I will have been a fool who spent his life living as few men can hope to live. I am a dreamer. And for the dreamer, the obstacles mean nothing; the dream is everything.

So I will go on. For as long as I am unpublished, I will feel the pain of a weary heart, but I will go on. Because dreams, even when they don’t come true are still worth something. They are the heart of the soul, the distilled essence of humanity itself. And without them, we are nothing.