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”
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”
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?”
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?