Fail better.

I live in a state of constant failure. Even this post represents a failure, since I’m not writing on the topic I’ve been struggling with for the past week, and I’m repurposing an old personal blog post instead. I take on more that I can realistically handle, and I aim much higher than I can probably ever achieve. I determine my self-worth in large part by my distance from the top–i.e., the distance I failed to cover, instead of the distance that I climbed from the bottom. On days like today, I feel as though my life is defined by what I didn’t achieve:

  • I didn’t write the challenging post on the tensions between writing for art versus commerce, or self-expression versus audience. Hopefully my thoughts will continue to percolate until I’m able to articulate them clearly.
  • I’m working on a novel, a short story revision, a new science fiction short story (writing SF scares me), and a comic script. I’m falling behind my self-imposed schedule on all four projects, but refuse to let go of any of them.
  • I am on rejection number five for my story about a necromantic mushroom in love. But I keep submitting it to professional markets.

In Booklife, Jeff Vandermeer tells us that “To be great, we must attempt so much that we not only are in danger of forever failing, but that we do fail ..and in the failure create something greater than if we had set our sights lower.” I find deep comfort in these words. I’m not sure if anyone else feels this way, but it’s like I need someone to give me permission to fail. And not just permission to fail in the process of achieving a single goal, but to fail and fail again. As Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Here’s one more quote, and some muddling of metaphors: Thoreau said that our dreams should be in the clouds, but that we should set about building the foundations to support them. What do you do when your dreams are soaring into the stratosphere? What if they’ve reached the earth’s escape velocity?

I know I’m unlikely to achieve my dreams, but I refuse to set my sights lower.

Maybe it’s the Japanese in me. There is a place for the honorable loser. The great medieval epic, the Tale of the Heike, is named for the losers of the Gempei War. I want to fail and fail again. Because if I only fail when I set my sights high and stretch myself in the vain struggle to achieve them. I will fail. I will try again and fail better. And by so doing, I will fail gloriously.

So, what are your recent failures?

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  1. Matthew Smith
    16/06/2011 at 6:42 am Permalink

    I’ve failed to become what I wanted for myself. I keep trying because there is nothing else. If I gave up, I’d be exactly where I am right now. So I must push forward even if there is no hope.

    You don’t need permission to fail, John. Everyone has failed and everyone still alive will fail some more. Our ancestors failed countless times and yet they wouldn’t give up. They fought for every scrap of food and fought to protect their children. In the end they won as much as any of us ever can.

    You might need permission to rest, though. Rest for a bit. Soon you won’t be able to stand it and you’ll be back at it, fighting for every scrap.

    Do well, friend.

  2. linda
    16/06/2011 at 8:24 am Permalink

    Thanks for the post. I’m terrified of failure too… which sucks, since I fail all the time. 😛 I’m learning to pick myself up and keep going, though!

  3. John Remy
    16/06/2011 at 5:14 pm Permalink

    Hehe, we live in constant fear. :) 

    But keep on keeping on!

  4. Adam Israel
    16/06/2011 at 9:56 am Permalink

    There’s an art to failing. The trick is to not let your failures keep you from trying, each and every day. We learn from our missteps, which leads to brilliant successes.

    I fail daily. I failed to make my work quota, which trickles down — no word count, no editing, and so on. Tomorrow, I’ll revise my schedule, try harder and do a little better. I won’t beat myself up for the things I didn’t get done, though. I did my best and that’s all I can ask of myself.

  5. Ben Godby
    16/06/2011 at 12:33 pm Permalink

    I had a rewrite rejected the other day. That was annoying. But, I still think the rewrite I did made the story better, and the new version is already under consideration elsewhere. Failing is the opportunity to succeed elsewhere/later/otherwise.

  6. John Remy
    16/06/2011 at 5:13 pm Permalink

    “Failing is the opportunity to succeed elsewhere/later/otherwise.”

    I really like this line. And good luck sending out the new, improved version!

  7. Danielle Raver
    16/06/2011 at 1:56 pm Permalink

    I feel much the same! I have too many project at the same time. Finishing and “letting go” my first novel was actually very depressing, like losing a long-time friend. And now I can’t get my head around anything new (and my publisher is bugging me for the next three chapters of the sequel: ) I guess a little prodding is helpful, right?

  8. Erika Holt
    16/06/2011 at 1:56 pm Permalink

    It takes courage to dream big, and even more courage to shoot for those dreams. I see you not as a failure, but as someone who dares, who pushes himself, and who is one of the bravest people I know. And this isn’t failure, it’s success. I have no doubt that you’ll meet and even exceed your goals–it’s finding the time that will be the challenge.

  9. John Remy
    16/06/2011 at 5:09 pm Permalink

    Thank you, friend. 

  10. Andy Romine
    16/06/2011 at 2:42 pm Permalink

    (reading this after having failed to make my morning word count….. :P)

    Failure is part of the process, an ebb and flow of effort really. The trick is not to get paralyzed or glum about a bad day and keep the overall project(s) in perspective. 

    I echo Matt, too. I think permission to rest is more important than permission to fail. In fact, I’d argue that sometimes we (as a culture? as writers?) too often conflate rest with failure. As if letting the writing sit a day or two while we recharge our batteries and fill our wells is somehow a sin of the worst degree. 

    It’s not. The sin would be to burn out. To shove a half-finished story out into the world before it’s ready. It’s not a race, remember? 

    Great, thoughtful post as always John. 

  11. Christie Yant
    16/06/2011 at 3:55 pm Permalink

    I’m right there with you, my friend. Sometimes it feels like too much, and for just a split second I toy with the idea of quitting, of doing something else with my life. But that’s not possible. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do and I would be miserable (more miserable) if I stopped trying. 

    I think posts like this are important. It’s an experience we all share. Some of us are deep in it and others are feeling more buoyed at the moment. We’ll just hold on to those guys for now. Until it’s their turn to be in it. 


  12. M
    16/06/2011 at 4:29 pm Permalink

    I am slightly amused that you regarded “rejection number five for my story about a necromantic mushroom in love” as a failure. Only five rejections? Faugh.

    (If that story has any sort of frightening/horrific bent to it — and if you are willing to consider a non-professional submission — send me a PM with the wordcount, as well as a list of the places you have already tried.)

  13. John Remy
    16/06/2011 at 5:00 pm Permalink

    Thanks, M, for the offer. I turned down a semi-pro sale because I believe in that story more than any other. It’s not the story with the most rejections, but the one I feel most keenly.

  14. M
    16/06/2011 at 6:45 pm Permalink

    If it’s a story you believe worthy of professional placement, settle for nothing less.

  15. R.S. Hunter
    16/06/2011 at 4:44 pm Permalink

    I think every writer needs to learn these lessons. Failure is a part of life. What you do with your failures and how you react to them is what matters. This was a great post to read when I’m struggling to get back into working on a novel. I stopped working on it to edit a different book, and now I’m finding it almost impossible to get going again. I was beating myself up for a couple days because I wouldn’t get anything done. Just last night I finally stopped getting angry about that.

  16. John Remy
    16/06/2011 at 5:04 pm Permalink

    I’m glad you crossed that anger threshold–I know how frustration can feed on itself, and become a powerful creative block. I hope that opens you up to move forward on your novel. Wishing you the best!

  17. John Remy
    16/06/2011 at 5:02 pm Permalink

    Thanks, everyone. I believe in failing, but I guess I don’t mention that it’s not always very easy emotionally. Hearing your struggles gives me strength. 

  18. John Remy
    16/06/2011 at 5:12 pm Permalink

    Adam and Christie, you two are largely responsible for setting the example for a good permission to fail attitude, and I’m grateful to you both. 

    Matt and Andy, I’m going to mull over your permission to rest (coming as it does from two sources I respect greatly!). It’s definitely not something I allow myself, and when I do, there always has to be justification, or the price of guilt. 

  19. Wendy Wagner
    16/06/2011 at 6:18 pm Permalink

    I think there’s an almost Platonic ideal for each and every story we write–a perfection of idea and form and word that exists in very back of our heads, just beyond reach. What a writer does is stretch to reach that form, streeeetch to see it well enough to recreate it on the page. No one can get it just right, but we hope we get better and better at it every time. 

    In that sense, every writer is a failure. But the really flexible, the really stretchy? They can fail better. And the good new is: you’re taking yoga.

  20. Sandra Wickham
    16/06/2011 at 7:49 pm Permalink

    Thanks, John. This came at a perfect time for me, mostly to know I’m not alone. I hold all my fellow Inkpunks up as examples of amazing, successful people, my friends I want to be “as good as” and a big part of me is terrified to let you all down.

    I promise to fail gloriously.

  21. Wendy Wagner
    16/06/2011 at 9:06 pm Permalink

    Honeydear, the only way you could let me down is if you decided not to be my friend. <3.

  22. Anonymous
    16/06/2011 at 9:14 pm Permalink

    I always appreciate your posts, John. Very honest and real <3 "I determine my self-worth in large part by my distance from the top…" UGH SO TRUE. I do this exact same thing. And when I fail, I feel like that distance between me and the top stretches further. It's good to have it reaffirmed that many people have this feeling, and to hear we have permission to make mistakes <3 Thank you for saying all this 🙂

  23. Sandra M. Odell
    16/06/2011 at 10:02 pm Permalink

    Well written post that speaks to more than just writing.  How did I fail today?  Hmmm…

    I failed to get my youngest son (14 years) to urinate in the toilet, but will try again tomorrow.

    I failed to produce any wordcount on my current story, but plotted out the next two scenes in my head.

    I failed to have the emotional strength to make it out of the house today, but recognize that some days are better than others and it’s healthier to accept what I can do today.

    I failed today.  I will fail better tomorrow.  It reminds me of a SEASAME STREET animated piece where a girl chants ‘Practice so tomorrow I’ll be better than today.”

  24. SarahVay
    17/06/2011 at 8:13 pm Permalink

    If my musician-ness may invade this writerly sphere.. 🙂
    I relate all too well to your sentiments about judging myself against what I haven’t accomplished rather than what I have.  As a musician, you are _never_ done practicing.  There’s always something else I should be working on.  My pottery class has taught me to fail better and faster.  Never get too attached to a pot, because it could fail at any moment at any point in the process.  From having it splatter the wall, to folding into a twisted goopy mud-pile, to being nicked or mushed when taking it off the wheel, cracking during firing, a glaze gone awry, or miriad other ways to have it all go wrong.

    Lessons learned:  “It’s a feature!” (not an error)
    “If it does fail, pull it off and get the next one on.  Don’t waste time mourning the loss.”

    And, inevitably what comes out of “failures” is a very human touch to the features that make a piece interesting rather than “factory standard.”  This has helped with my confidence in playing music.  Move _through_ the failures, and constantly tweak and refine, but don’t stop!