Monday, August 13, 2012

The Art of Failing

Years ago I’d watched J.K. Rowling give the 2008 commencement speech at Harvard, which talked about how failure had ensured her success. We are familiar with Rowling’s story. She was jobless, a single parent and poor. She had hit rock bottom and now that she had failed at everything else in life there was nothing else to lose. She could finish Harry Potter.

 I was just starting on my professional career –the one I went to school for, the one that would help pay off my student loans and settle my bills when I saw the video. I didn’t have the luxury of failure. Plus, I didn’t like the feel of failing. It pulled you down, forced you to introspect, retrospect and all in all, slow you on your journey. So I did everything possible to make sure I didn’t fail. For example, when I started writing my very first manuscript if a chapter became too hard to write I’d stop. I’d wait for months before I felt I could tackle the scene the way I wanted to. At other times, I wondered whether my scenes measured up but my fear of failure made me decide not to join a critique group. What if they said my story and all my efforts were a complete waste of time? No, no, best not to be labeled a failure.

 I shelved my first manuscript, my second, my third and so it went on for years. I didn’t want to send out a manuscript that would fail. It was now five years since I’d started thinking of myself as a writer. I hadn’t tried to get published. I hadn’t tried to ask what other writers thought of my writing and story. I had, in my efforts to avoid failure, strangely enough started to feel like one. I didn’t have results; I didn’t even know if I had learned anything over the years I’d been writing. Was I today a better writer than all those years earlier? How had it turned out that after trying so hard to not feel like a failure I felt like one? Had I been so cautious that I’d become a failure by default?

 So here’s something, which wiser people than I, have figured out. There is failure at every corner. It is unavoidable. Everybody fails. The question is how do you fail. There is a certain art to failing, which can help to make failure less painful.

1.       Fail quickly: Write your first draft. Don’t try to make it perfect. Don’t revise too much. Don’t waste too much time being hard on yourself. Join a critique group. Connect with a couple of betas. Listen to what your betas and writing partners have to say. In short, allow yourself the luxury to fail. It’s okay if they tear it apart; it’s okay if they don’t like 99% of it. Know quickly that you’ve failed at that attempt. Make sure you shelve that first manuscript quickly or begin a re-write quickly. When you fall off a bike, the advice is to get back on it as quickly as you can. Same with your writing.

2.       Be ready to fail again: Prepare yourself to fail many times. You are going to be disappointed, your work is going to be rejected, you may wonder if people doubt that you are going to make it as a serious writer. That is okay. It is okay to feel like a failure. It is okay as long as you keep trying to get better at what you are doing. Don’t let failure bog you down. Don’t avoid it. Don’t be afraid it. Don’t live life so cautiously that you become a failure by default. Use it. Use failure as a beginning to move forward, to start fresh, every single time.

3.       Recognize success: Mastering the art of failure couldn’t be complete without a final component. You must learn to recognize when you have succeeded. After constant failures, you are in a perpetual state of improvement –revisions, re-writes, becoming better at your craft. You want to make your work better and better. But at some point you’ve got to pause and take count. Maybe you’ve written that manuscript that’s ready to be queried. Maybe you’ve got a character that people want to go on a journey with. Now that your critique group is telling you that you are on your way, and agents at conferences want to read beyond your first page, maybe it is time, at last, to climb all your rungs of failure to querying and publication.

What do you think of failure? Have you figured out the art of failing? What has worked for you?


  1. This is an rxcellent article, Archana, and should be of real help to beginning writers, especially. I would like to add only one thing. If you believe you are a writer, there is no such thing as failure. Anything one writes--poem, short story, book ms--has value, even if it doesn't get published. Everything you writes helps you to grow as a writer.

  2. I've got to work on number one. I feel like I'm cheating if I don't try to do my best the first time, but then I'm never happy anyway, so why waste all sorts of time worrying that it'll fail? (As you say though... It will, get over it and move on. : ) )