This is not the way that phrase is usually deployed, of course—instead we get the über-American, ultra-type-A, seriously pressure-inducing, “Failure is not an option!”
But I’ve been thinking a bit about that idea lately.
I’ve mentioned here in the blog that I’m working on the follow-up to Intuitive Editing. (It’s called Intuitive Character Development, and if you have thoughts and ideas about what you struggle with in this arena and would like to see me address, please feel free to drop me a line; I’d love to hear it.)
With Intuitive Editing, once I lit on the “spine” of the book—the way I wanted to approach and structure it, from macroedits to micro and with clear “How to Find It” and “How to Fix It” sections—it truly practically wrote itself.
I’ve been working on the theories and ideas in this new book for many years, and I know what I want to say—the individual topics feel crystal-clear and well developed. But I keep trying to find “the spine” of the book, its through line and overarching approach.
And I keep failing.
“Success” Is an Outlier
There’s a wonderful quote often attributed to Thomas Edison: “I never once failed at making a light bulb. I just found out 99 ways not to make one.”
(The actual quote is less meme-able: When asked if he was disappointed, after so many experiments, not to have gotten any results, Edison said, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.”)
I love the intention behind Edison’s sentiment. It’s so commonsensical and obvious, yet so often we regard our unsuccessful attempts on the road to finding successful ones as “failures.”
As I keep floundering with the “right” structure for this new book, I sometimes notice myself getting a little frustrated and discouraged at my failure to do so. Sometimes I lose confidence and stop writing on it for chunks of time.
Yet this is the very definition of the scientific method, where you fail and fail and fail until you succeed. It’s the failures that pave the way to your success.
Failure is not only an option—it has to be—but a requirement. It’s a necessary step on the path.
Read more: “A Rational Antidote for Emotional Thinking”
“Are You Paying Attention to Your Progress?”
You Will Fail More Than You Succeed
A young friend of mine has recently decided—at age 13—to take up photography, after finding an old Kodak camera at a garage sale. He’s been taking pictures of everything, from rooms in his house to his family to nature images to endless photos of the neighborhood dogs. And a lot of them are…well, let’s just say we’re seeing a lot of pedestrian images like this, of my Great Pyrenees:
But one day he was snapping photos of our other dog and he got this, which I think looks like a feature photo for a magazine profile spread on “The Stars at Home”:
That doesn’t mean that every single photo he takes now is this well shot. This one is what my techie husband would call a “data point,” a milepost of progress my friend is making on his path toward learning the skills of photography and honing his talent at it. He’s still taking so many pictures he’s running through piles of batteries, and most of them are still unremarkable.
But little by little, more and more of them are remarkable.
They won’t all be—that’s just not the nature of creative work. Even with the professional photographers I’ve engaged for headshots over the years, many of the images just aren’t all that usable. Sometimes it’s for technical reasons—they’re a little out of focus, or the composition feels a bit off, the lighting not quite right.
But far more often it’s because of me. They may not capture the exact moment I look my best, or that precise expression or demeanor that shows what I was hoping to convey.
That’s not a judgment on the photographer’s skills—they’re professionals who’ve been at their craft for years. It’s that they are working in a subjective medium with endless variables, from the light to the shutter speed to the exposure to the living, breathing, changing, moving, mercurial subject matter.
Failing and Succeeding Is Writing and Rewriting
As an author, with every story you create whole worlds; fashion cohesive, fully dimensional living beings from nothing more than the ether of your imagination; invent intricate courses of action for them to take, in the course of which they are fundamentally changed in some complex emotional/psychological way.
There are countless subjective variables you must get just right, and falling short in any one of them has the potential to keep your story from “succeeding”—from getting your vision onto the page as effectively and impactfully as you can make it.
And then you must go back in and figure out what went wrong…and try something else to correct it. And if that doesn’t work you must do it again. And again. And again. You may have to find 99 ways not to tell this story before you light on the way that works.
That’s what we in the business call “editing and revision,” friends. Also known as “the process.”
And it’s not only normal—it’s what writing is. It’s what any creative pursuit is—or actually any pursuit at all.
Though society may teach us—and we may even believe—that there is some external definition of success and failure, it’s an illusion. Like Edison, we define it.
If we can come to accept failure without judgment as a natural part of the process, that’s how we learn from it. We’re able to objectively assess what went wrong and why, and then we can “science the s*** out of it” and figure out how to make it go right.
Read more: “Forgiving Your Failure”
“Whose Standards Are You Judging Yourself By?”
If failure is an option, then it does not lose its sting but it may lose its power to tamp down the very parts of me that can continue to try to achieve success. I can remind myself not to shut my creativity down by getting all in my head with judgment about myself or my abilities when something isn’t working. That’s just another data point for me to work with in discovering what will.
It’s rejuvenated my work on Intuitive Character Development: now I’ve ascertained several different approaches that aren’t the spine, and I’m circling in closer on how to unite all of these various areas and theories I’ve been working on into the most useful, practical, cohesive whole.
This draft could still “fail,” of course, because this may still not be the right structure for the book. It may not flow as cohesively as it needs to; I may not get it on the page as well as I want to; it may not adequately convey the intentions in my head. That is also an option.
I can’t control that, but it doesn’t mean I failed.
It just means I can learn from it one more data point of what didn’t work for my intentions…and try again to succeed at finding what does.
Read more: “What If You Don’t ‘Succeed’ as a Creator?”
“What Do You Do When the Worst Happens?”
Okay, authors, let’s talk “failure.” I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote this post, in fact—and how many words wound up in the discard file before I found what I was actually trying to say. How about you—how do you keep from judging yourself or your stories when they may not come together as quickly or effectively as you hoped? Do you have ways of coping with discouragement during difficult drafts or revisions? How do you remind yourself that this is the process, and keep sitting down with your story and trying again and again and again with the ones that may come harder than others?
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Your perspective led me to rethink a stalled nonfiction project with that elusive “spine.”
We’ll see if I have the energy to follow through.
BTW – your “Intuitive Editing” helped me wrap up my latest novel. Thank you!
That’s delightful to hear. I never think that the books in the drawer are all the way dead. They’re just not yet ready to be born. 🙂 Good luck, Cyndi!
I bet you may be reinspired by great character writing from other authors. Many years ago, I read THE DEADLANDS by Benjamin Percy and thought it was great sci-fi, but weak on character. Recently, I read one of his latest books, THE UNFAMILIAR GARDEN. The grounded sci-fi was great, but it took a way-back, backseat to his multi-faceted characters. I’d highly recommend it, even if the genre isn’t to your taste. He also wrote a great how-to book called THRILL ME. (not that you need a how-to) But your followers might. Maybe you could interview him!
I love this comment, Sharon–and the suggestion. Thank you! And how instructive is it to analyze things like that–not just whether character development is strong, but how an author’s writing evolves, even after they are “successful.” We’re never finished “baking” as creatives–I think if we’re doing this pursuit right, we learn till we quit (or die). Till then we’re half-baked. 😉
Thanks for the tips–I’ll check these books out.
Sometimes I’ll sit down to write, or work on an art piece, with the idea that I’m just testing, with no pressure to complete something that day. I’ll try something out a number of ways, either on a separate document or some scraps, so my “real” piece isn’t affected by my trials-and-errors. If none of the trials pan out, it’s not big deal. I’ve at least ruled out what won’t work and I’ll probably think of something else while I’m doing it. Just doing SOMETHING gets the juices flowing.
That’s a great “brain trick,” Claudia. I have a similar version I call “permission to suck,” in which I sit down to write and literally overtly give myself permission to suck that day. 🙂 As you pointed out, somehow it often takes that pressure off and lets you be freer, trying things you might be too wrapped around the axle to see when you’re working hard to get it “right.”
In a happy coda, while walking my dog yesterday (some of my best “think time,” when I just let my mind aimlessly noodle over whatever I have been working on), I suddenly lit on what I think is the problem in my new book, and found my “spine.” Here’s hoping this is my lightbulb! 🙂
Thanks for sharing your process.
First, I love your dogs. both Alsatians and Great Pyrenees are special favorites of mine. Although, so far as I know, there is no such thing as a bad dog. How could there be?
Your post is very thought-provoking. My first technique is to ask myself, “What happens if I don’t write it? Answer: Nothing. That’s not acceptable.
Second, I don’t write it just for the result. Of course, I want it to be as good as it can be, but an awful lot of the psychic income is the journey. Crafting a first draft is a leap into the dark. Then you have to read it. Equally daunting, expiation is required.
Next Excavating the story out of that mess. An act of faith. Finally making it as good as it can be. There’s still plenty to do if you want to share it with the world, or at least those who might care, but what a journey. Talk about character building: I am not who I was. I am a much better me. More enlightened. Look what I’ve done!
Of course, it’s not everything I wanted it to be. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is not finished, it’s abandoned.” I think he meant you could always do more to it, with it.
What would have happened if I hadn’t started? Nothing. …If I hadn’t persisted through all that self-doubt? Well, I wouldn’t have what I’ve accomplished, and I wouldn’t have had the experience. I’d be exactly where I was when I didn’t start.
I had to look up Alsatians to make sure I knew what they were (nope, turns out I was picturing an Afghan). Alsatians are very lovely! I love shepherd-looking pups. We didn’t know what a Great Pyrenees was till we found Alex (he was at a shelter–we just thought he was a giant white mutt), but we are in love with the breed now. Gentle, sweet giants. And yes, all dogs are perfect. 🙂
You always post such thoughtful comments, Bob, and this one is no exception. I LOVE that you start with the question, “What happens if I don’t write it?” That cuts right to the heart of it, doesn’t it? Any “failure” we may experience while writing is still something, rather than nothing. It’s progress.
And O, wise one, yes, I think that if we can realize that the journey is the point, not the destination (at the risk of my sounding like a dime-store philosopher), then we’re free. The doing of the thing is the purpose–not the thing itself. The experience, not the outcome. And that experience can be…well, a slog, as you point out, which is why I think it can be so frustrating. Even at our best, our work rarely matches precisely the glorious vision we had for it.
But it’s as good as we can make it right now. And we are better than we were for having done it. And so we start again…and the next one will be a little better…but not perfect…and we start again…. And eventually, as you (and da Vinci) point out, you have to decide you’re finished working on it, whether it’s perfect or not.
Or as I like to put it in my less lyrical way, Good enough is good enough. That’s become my mantra. 🙂
Thank you for being here. I always enjoy your thoughts.
Great thought provoking post. Character I think is that which defines you, the individual, the creator and inventor of a body of work. Know thy self and you can honestly write about what a fictional Character will do next, in a believable manner. Much like acting we the writers must unmask ourselves to imagine that we are somebody else.
Character defines who we are and in which direction our writing goes, I don’t think that we have any say in the matter once we start typing and creating our stories, it’s all about our characters, Wether we like it or not.
Warren, I’ve literally just been working on a chapter of the new book related to this very idea! The best resource we have in writing our characters is ourselves–not to create thinly disguised versions of ourselves as our protags, but to draw from the rich well of experiences, emotions, thoughts, reactions that we all have and use that as a springboard for our creative imagination. And I agree that it often requires looking at parts of ourselves we might like to keep tucked under the hood. Writing demands self-intimacy and brutal honesty, I think–a willingness not only to see the dark as well as the light in ourselves, but to let it out. (Safely on the page, of course…)
I couldn’t agree more with you that character is the heart of story. That’s the guiding tenet of all my work as an editor–and my writing, for that matter. Thanks for your insights and great points.
I’m really looking forward to your next book, Tiffany! I’m sorry it’s been kind of a mess to sort through. Talking about it and giving yourself plenty of time to walk away, reflect, and return, will hopefully help you gain some clarity.
I am currently embarking on the 4th major rewrite of a book I’ve been working on for four years and will be cutting a large number of hard-earned words, sentences and scenes. As a hobby musician for most of my life, I finally realized and was able to let go of the pain I feel when I delete hard work by reminding myself that musicians spend hours and hours practicing. How many hours and days and weeks did I spend perfecting that piano sonata? Or the time it took to switch smoothly between the D and G chords on a guitar? I finally realized that all those words I have to cut are scales, notes, and hours spent practicing. They are stepping stones to the final product, and they must be placed to get there. They don’t have to be used, but they must be written. They are practice. That’s the way I’ve been able to make peace with letting them go, and the sense of “failure” I feel when I do.
Bless you, woman–thanks. And I don’t know if it was your magic fairy dust or my acceptance of failing that let me take the pressure off, but right after this post was scheduled I actually had a breakthrough (while walking the dogs, or as I like to think of it, Magic Think Time) and I think I cracked the bastard. 🙂 Ironically it was the same wrong approach that I made in Intuitive Editing at first, and once I figured that out with that book, it flowed like nobody’s business. Hopefully that’s how it’ll work with this one too.
I love your analogy with your music–it’s perfect. For me it was similar when I was an actor–you may rehearse a show or a scene dozens of times or more for every time you perform it. No one would expect a musician or actor or dancer to step onstage and nail something out of the gate. Practice and rehearsal–and failing till you succeed–is the process. But for some reason we don’t often see that in our writing. Your idea of the scales and notes and hours that are spent but never wasted is beautiful.
Thanks for sharing this. I expect I won’t be the only reader to find it helpful and inspiring.
And also good luck with your rewrite! This is the hardest work of writing–but the most important and the most rewarding. <3
I love this post and all of the comments…from other writers and yourself. Feeling stuck and overwhelmed and maybe afraid to fail (?) has kept me from diving back into the next draft of a novel just waiting for me to move forward. I think this post is the push I need…Thanks so much!
I’m so glad to hear that! I have to remind myself a LOT that it’s okay to fail, that it’s the process. I agree–everyone’s comments on this post have been helpful for me too. Thanks, Suzanne–always happy to see you here. And good luck on your next draft!