Failure: You’re Doing it Right

We’ve all heard the truism that the best way to learn is to make mistakes. I’d like to go one step further and suggest that our best teacher is often failure. There’s nothing quite so motivating as to fall flat on your face trying a new thing. If you’re like me, sometimes it takes a few days to uncurl from the fetal position, but I try to assess what I did wrong, or more importantly, what I could do better and throw myself back out there. Fear of failure is the real problem, though. It can paralyze and inhibit, prevent us from trying something new, or even trying again. I’m far from immune to such fears, myself of course, but whenever I start to feel blocked up from failure, it’s helpful for me to consider the following three things and become a little more comfortable with failure:

Safe Spaces

I’m currently taking a puppetry class in the evenings after work. When I signed up, I thought it would be mostly lecture and demonstrations, but it turns out to be a multi-week performance-heavy class. I’m no stranger to acting, but it’s been a very long time since I got up in front of (relative) strangers and performed like that. The instructor immediately set us at ease by paraphrasing his friend Richard Taylor (of WETA Workshop). “I throw myself at failure and hope I miss.” Then our instructor set up ground rules, one of which was: This is a safe place for making mistakes. “We’re all going to get pretty silly in here,” he said, “and I want us all to be kind to each other.” I’ve only been to one class so far, but I see this wisdom in the instructor’s advice. We played some improv games that were pretty silly, but it relaxed us and allowed us to play and practice — and fail — without worrying too much about it. In your writing life, try to find safe spaces where you can fail. Trusted beta readers? Writing group? Maybe you can designate a chunk of your daily writing time to warm-up exercises and prompts where you write some crazy ambitious prose. Silly stuff. Sexy stuff. Dark stuff. No one’s watching. Go for it.

All a Part of the Plan

Failure is part of the process, so it’s helpful to openly acknowledge it as such and move on from any sense of shame you might feel. The more you think of it as normal, the less it can bug you. An actor friend of mine once told me that’s the only way she could get through hundreds of auditions. “In any other business, I’d be a failure,” she said. But she knew that all these parts she didn’t get, in a way, told her she was doing her job right. I’ve often thought about her story, and the parallel to a writing career. A steady stream of rejections means you are getting your work out there. A trunk full of failed novels and short stories means you have been writing, honing your craft, and putting in the hours. Hopefully you’re not failing with the same novel or short story, though. There comes a time when that story goes into the trunk and you write a new one. And another. And another. Make those rejections slips part of your process.

The Wheat from the Chaff

Sometimes failing at something is the only way to discover what you’re really good at. This is a less intuitive (and perhaps less pleasant) aspect of failure, but still a very important one. You have to be willing to put in long hours in any career or craft to get good at it. In those hundreds or thousands of hours of writing, drawing, puppetry, or even accounting, you’ll find your strengths and weaknesses. You’ll discover where your passion really lies. I love to draw. I even have some raw talent. Ever since I could hold a crayon I’ve been doodling pictures of monsters, spaceships, superheroes, and so on. For many years, I put in the hours thinking I might become a comic book artist. I always seemed to come up a bit short in rendering my vision to paper, however. I grew frustrated that the stories I wanted to tell didn’t quite turn out like I’d hoped. That’s when I started to realize that the stories I wanted to tell were more important than the drawings I was using to tell them. I still like to draw, but only by failing at it did I discover how much I love to write.

So don’t worry so much about failing. Sometimes it’s the best thing that can happen to you. It often leads to success. What do you think about failing? Please comment below!

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  • galen dara

    I needed this one today, Andy. Thank you.

    And may I just say… THIS~> “I put in the hours thinking I might become a comic book artist. I always
    seemed to come up a bit short in rendering my vision to paper, however.
    I grew frustrated that the stories I wanted to tell didn’t quite turn
    out like I’d hoped. That’s when I started to realize that the stories I
    wanted to tell were more important than the drawings I was using to tell
    them. I still like to draw, but only by failing at it did I discover
    how much I love to write.”

    That, is potent stuff.

    • http://twitter.com/inkgorilla Andrew Penn Romine

      Thank YOU Galen! That was a big revelation for me. :)

  • http://twitter.com/wnwagner Wendy Wagner

    I was just thinking about this! I’ve spent this year working on novels and really experimental short work. Most of that short work is never going to find a home, and just this week, I realized I was okay with that. The important thing is that I tried a lot of new techniques and tactics that may not have been successful, but hopefully helped me expand my repertoire. That can only help the novels, which I’ve been more cautious about.

    • http://twitter.com/inkgorilla Andrew Penn Romine

      That sounds exciting, Wendy! I haven’t allowed myself the space to play like that. I’ve been so focused on actual projects, making time for experimentation has been hard. I need to change my attitude. :)

  • http://twitter.com/davisac1 Amanda C. Davis

    I like what you said about the actress. I feel that too; if I’m not getting rejected every three or four days, I know I’m not working hard enough.

    • http://twitter.com/inkgorilla Andrew Penn Romine

      Exactly, Amanda! There’s a special pride, sometimes, in that sort of thing, right? :)

  • http://profiles.google.com/upwithgravity Matthew Smith

    Fantastic post! This is a message that artists can’t hear enough. – MSS

    • http://twitter.com/inkgorilla Andrew Penn Romine

      Thanks Matthew! I have to constantly remind myself of this stuff.

  • Andrea Ellickson

    This line really caught my attention: “That’s when I started to realize that the stories I wanted to tell were
    more important than the drawings I was using to tell them. I still like
    to draw, but only by failing at it did I discover how much I love to
    write.”

    How true! I remember when I was attempting a career in journalism and realized that the frantic pace & deadlines were too much to keep up with, but somehow feature writing lead me to fiction. The characters are still front and center, but this time I’m allowed to make them up :-)

    • http://twitter.com/inkgorilla Andrew Penn Romine

      Excellent Andrea! Sounds like you’re off to a good start, too. Looking forward to meeting you in person some day! :)

  • John Dewey Nakamura Remy

    Hehe, one thing that came to mind: “I’m a big success at failure!”

    Thank you for this. I’ve thought a lot about your post today. This one, and Sandra’s recent post on writing a throwaway novel, give me permission to fail. But I think it’s equally important to apply some self-awareness and to take the time and energy to learn from our failures. That’s implicit in your post, but I wanted to draw that out, because it’s super important to me.

    • http://twitter.com/inkgorilla Andrew Penn Romine

      I’m glad you pointed that out, John. I was just talking about this over dinner last night — I’m so busy spending my writing time writing, I don’t slow down as often as I need to and apply that self-awareness and reflection like I should.

  • Nicole Feldringer

    Great post, Andy! I also tend to think that you actually improve *faster* by failing, as long as–as John said–you’re making a conscious effort to push your boundaries and learn from your mistakes. As my skiing buddies used to say, “If you’re not falling down, you’re not trying hard enough!”