Failure hurts. We spend untold amounts of energy doing our best to avoid it. The process of failing is doubly painful for those of us raised by women whose worth was measured by their efficacy as housewife and mother. Their children’s accomplishments ticked boxes on their performance appraisal. Our failings were their failings. Perfectionism was the fix.
Prolific author Joyce Carol Oates wrote that, “The artist perhaps more than most people, inhabits failure, degrees of failure and accommodation and compromise; but the terms of his failure are generally secret.” Generally, but not exclusively as I can personally attest.
Each week I fail at meeting self-imposed writing deadlines, most of which are too aggressive to be achievable. Perfectionism natters inside my head. Perhaps it’s making noise in yours too? But new chapters don’t get written in one week when more research is required or when flawed logic in a plotline demands rewrites. I used to flail myself with negative self-talk over extended finish lines, but I’ve learned to silence the inner critic. Not meeting time goals prompted me to cultivate mindfulness, so I can focus for longer durations. I now plan work to match my natural ebb and flow of energy instead of battling against it. The uptick is that I succeed at failing less in this regard.
As we churn out more work there’s more exposure, more possibilities for failure. And so, to continue, we artists must be tenacious and embrace the symbiotic relationship between failure and success.
A slightly less private forum in which I fail routinely is critique sessions with the small group of trusted writers I’ve been meeting with regularly for eight years. Even Hemmingway, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald met to rake each other’s work over the coals. In the beginning, I was gutted by the imperfections discovered in my drafts. But then, with this repeated experience of failure, I began to understand this ongoing series of failings as information to grow on. I love these paragraphs I’ve birthed, but I must also hold them arms length with objectivity. God invented third and fourth drafts because the first one is never perfect. The people in my group are like family and I have great affection for them. We pull no punches in dissecting each other’s writing, but the work, once revised, is the better for it. In this way, we insulate each other from greater failure later in the public forum.
If you’ve ever read Brené Brown, you’ve heard that daring greatly guarantees we’ll eventually fail. So many creatives are introverts, which is why working alone in solitude appeals to us. To share our work, which is inevitably self-revealing, and to do so in a very public way requires courage. It’s an act of daring greatly. Most of us don’t mind the serial failings that only we witness. But to experience failure in the public arena, possibly recorded and shared on social media, is an entirely new level of crash and burn. And yet, for our art to be experienced, we must stand exposed before the multitudes or the scant few attendees (God bless them) who show up for us.
My most public writing-related failure to date occurred at a reading series in an iconic Toronto bookshop. For each reading evening in the three months preceding my assigned night, I rode the train into the city to attend. I scoped out the artsy avant-garde audience, the faltering sound equipment, the buzzing conversation from coffee drinkers seated along bookshop windows. When my turn came, I was “perfectly” prepared.
Last minute, I substituted a different piece of writing, better suited to the crowd than the one accepted by the event organizers, I thought. That night, as singer songwriter friends had advised, I read with my mouth close to the mic. I remained so focused on trucking through my prose about a fatally ill boy that I didn’t step back when– being too close to the mic–my mouth repeatedly bumped against it. Then at one point, a young man in the front row squeezed the hand of the woman seated next to him. An act of consolation? My failure light began flashing. Had my subject matter had triggered something for her? I told myself to stay with the reading. And do it with more gusto. I reached a passage where the dialogue included the f-bomb. My voice took an upturn and the curse word burst forth in a high-pitched whine. I finished to muted applause from a stone-faced audience.
On the train ride home, I combed over each moment. How could I have been such an idiot? Before reaching home, I shifted my thinking. What was the big lesson? What would I do differently next time? I realized that I’d tried to be what I thought that crowd would want me to be. Now I remember who I am and consciously show up as myself. The words I’ve spent hours crafting don’t need plumping up with an overly dramatic reading. They speak for themselves. I have carried that revelation forward and, since that time, have performed countless other readings, a few to standing ovations.
All of our little failings teach us how to handle the next one and the next one. In doing so, we can avoid spinning out, ruminating for days and blocking our creative flow. Failure is integral to the creative process. Without failure, there is no success. Our tenacity develops when we fall down and get up repeatedly. To never be knocked down is to have never taken a risk. And to never take a risk is to never create art that can change minds or culture.