Sunday, June 23, 2013

Failure is not the Enemy

I write this post with the clear understanding that it is much easier for me to say these things on this side of the fence. Ten-years-ago-me would have punched present-me in the face for what I'm about to say.

Failure is not the enemy.

Failure is, in fact, a good thing.

Failure is when you strive for a goal and don't achieve it. For me, my biggest life goal was publication, and then being able to be a full-time writer. For a decade, I failed at this.

While I was in the middle of that decade of failure, well, failure sucked. I was pretty miserable. Sure, I had a happy face on, but there was this niggling knowledge that I had yet to achieve something I wanted. It was a hollow place inside me that was perpetually unfilled, a gaping wound no one but me could see.

I recently read this article on failure, and followed closely be reading an article on reddit in which a writer bemoaned that she had failed to have something published (having just gotten a rejection), and many in the community were quick to say it wasn't a failure, that she won just by having written it, and that she could always self-publish, that no words were wasted, etc., etc., etc.

Which is true.

But it's also not true. Because her goal had been traditional publication, and she failed to reach it in that moment.

The thing is--it's not about having failed or not. There's a clear answer there. She had failed. Just as I had failed for a decade. Recognizing that it was a failure is as clear as recognizing that the sky is blue, that grass is green. There's no point in calling something other than what it is; lying to yourself in this way is a band-aid on a broken arm.

What's not as easy to see is that failure is not a bad thing. It's just a thing.

Like I said, it's easy for me to say this now, with my life dream realized. But it is one of the few things I wish I could go back in time and tell myself.

Failure isn't the enemy. In fact, failure has been as sure a mentor to me as nearly anything else in my life.

Failure taught me:

Failure is inevitable. I will fail. We all will. And having failed, and gotten back up, and failed again, taught me that I can survive failure. This is a downfall in most modern stories: the hero always wins. Because while this story is inspiring, it's also false. In reality, not everyone wins. It's 100% true that no one wills all the time, and we expect that--every hero must fall at least once. But it's also 100% true that some people never win at all, and that's the thing we try so hard to ignore behind the pretty stories. I could spend the rest of my life trying to be a prima ballerina, and it would not happen. I would fail at that for the rest of my life.

Failure teaches us who we are. Because even though I know I would fail forever at being a prima ballerina, I also know that I am not someone who should be a prima ballerina. It's not who I am, it's not what I want. Of course I would fail at it. And that failure may hurt--it would be nice to be a ballerina, yes--but it would also teach me that it isn't the thing I want more than anything else. The thing I want more than anything else is to be a writer; so when I failed (for a decade) at being a writer, it wasn't something that I gave up on. My failure taught me how much I wanted to be a writer. I had tried other things in life--careers, hobbies. I played piano for a decade; I know how to sew and design clothes. But when I messed up Beethoven at the talent show, it stung--I was embarrassed--but it held none of the soul-crushing defeat of a rejection on a manuscript. And while I could play the piano--and I could play it technically well--I never had the passion within me to make it anything more than a hobby. My failures taught me who I am: failing at being a pianist was fine, because it wasn't who I was. Failing at writing was not, because it was.

Failure makes the success worth it. Even if it's something we love, when it comes easy, we don't appreciate it. I am grateful for every second of my life I get to say I'm an author, because for so long I was not. I am grateful for every aspect of the writing life, even the hard bits, because it's a part of the whole.

Failure makes us fearless. This is the thing that I think is perhaps the most important lesson of failure. I don't mean to harp on it, and I feel like I've said it a million times, but that decade before being published--it really shaped who I am. I spent ten years as a failure. I have over a thousand rejections. This isn't a hyperbole; it's not a lie. I have over a thousand rejections to my writing. More than a thousand times, someone told me I had failed to reach my goal.

Now, I've reached my goal. But I still carry around the rejection. Because...well, I know I will fail again. I'm published now, and I will be published for the next three years, as long as everything goes as planned and the contracts hold, etc. But after those three years? I want to be published more--but I have no guarantee. I have no way of knowing that everything else I write will not be rejected. It might be.

But, that's the gift of failure. I've had it before. I know I will have it again. I have already had other book proposals and samples rejected. I've already heard "no" again.

There's something about being tempered in fire, though, that makes the steel stronger.

Failure is not the enemy. Failure shapes us into who and what we are. Failure shows us what we are willing to fight for, and it gives us the backbone to fight for it. We need it to knock us around and be the roadblock so that we know if we should turn around and find a different path, or if it's worth it to make our own path.

If your goal is publication, accept nothing less than that. Know that you will fail, but know also that failure is not the enemy. Because the last thing I want to say is:

Don't settle for failure. Even though failure is not the enemy, it shouldn't be your friend. Set your goal, and settle for no less. Ask yourself what you really want.

  • I want this single book published. Then do what it takes to make that single book as perfect as possible, and then either send it out to agents for traditional publication, or self-publish it.
  • I want to have a book I wrote be traditionally published. Write a book. Revise. Edit. Submit to agents. Accept their rejection. If that book doesn't sell, write another book. Repeat. Recognize that even if your book is not accepted--that you failed--the actual goal is to be published, not for that book to be published, therefore you've only failed to meet your goal yet. Writer another book, a better book. Work up until you write something that's worth publication.
  • I want to have a book I wrote be self published. Write a book. Revise. Edit. Publish. Recognize that even if the book flops in sales, you achieved your goal of self-publication. Write another book, a better book with more marketing. Revise. Edit. Publish.
  • I want a career as an author. Write a book. Revise. Edit. Learn everything you can about the craft of writing, marketing, publishing (both traditional and self). Focus you attention on the market--not so that you chase trends, but so that you're aware of the state of the market. Join professional organizations. Create the best possible work you can. Write it. Write more of it. Experiment. Edit. Revise. Publish. Repeat.
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