Monday, March 17, 2014

The Skill of Failure

I always enjoy reading Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine when I’m on a flight.  I usually find an article that makes a connection with writing in some way.  March’s issue had an article titled ‘The New American Dream’ highlighting entrepreneurs who quit their day jobs in order to pursue work completely outside their chosen professions. (article here) I found it especially interesting that so many people working in tech or other high paying business related jobs quit to ‘do something with their hands.’  Craftsmanship is becoming more recognized and personal satisfaction more valued. 

But none was an overnight success. The way they handled failure ultimately made them successful. Jay Heinrichs, the Editorial Director, points out that in some fields, failure is a necessity.  “Body builders lift to failure, pumping iron until they can’t get in another rep. Judo novices learn the art of falling. Engineers push devices until they break…”   

The writing profession is built on a series of successes and failures.  We can take classes and read books on writing technique, but until we actually write and critique what we’ve written, we don’t know where we have failed and how to improve it.  We can’t be afraid to write stinky, smelly first drafts, because without those, we have nothing to perfect, nothing to be successful with.

It can be very frustrating, even heartbreaking, to spend months or years on a manuscript, only to have it rejected by a publisher or agent. Or by several.  Every writer I know has experienced it.   Some writers can’t handle rejection of their work and they quit altogether. The lucky ones are those who receive feedback from the editor and the smart ones act on those suggestions and resubmit.  The ones who haven’t learned to handle failure don’t follow through.  I have heard editors say they have made comments for specific improvements and encouraged writers to resubmit, but many don’t.  

As writers, we need a strategy for recovering from failure and using the experience to our advantage.  If the editor has made suggestions that we can live with, following through is the most effective means toward success.  Sending the manuscript for a professional paid critique is also beneficial, as long as it is a trusted source.  At a minimum, we must ensure that we have followed submission guidelines and researched the best publisher for the manuscript. We need writer friends to use as a sounding board when these disappointments leave us low or threaten to derail us.  We may need to step back briefly and gain a fresh perspective. We don’t need to push our writing to the breaking point, but we must learn to see failure as an opportunity for future success.  And we don't quit our day jobs - stress is a creativity killer.

How do you handle the disappointment of failure?  Perhaps you have a quote or cartoon or your favorite author’s bio which outlines their ultimate success after experiencing failure.  Please share it with us. We’d love to hear!


Cherry Odelberg said...

Yes. Financial stress is a creativity killer. I don't quit my day job, but I find it necessary to constantly reinvent, reinterpret my dreams and goals - the method, not the heart of the thing.

As for editing or taking an editor's suggestions or advice; I will always do it - eventually. Time is the deciding factor. Time does heal all. It may take me 6 months to revisit a chapter, finally see it the way of an editor or trusted reader, and re-write it. Punctuation and mechanics can be cleared up immediately.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Juggling a day job and writing is serious business! It's not for the faint of heart. Do you use a grid for planning out your writing time, like a daily work count, for instance?

I agree that sometimes we need to step back from the advice for awhile. The last thing we want to hear is that the manuscript we polished is imperfect. It can be disheartening.

Patti Hill said...

Debbie, this is such wise counsel. Kathryn Sockett, debut author of The Help was rejected by publishers 60 times. Sixty times!

Megan Sayer said...

This is good wisdom Debbie.
I was thinking about a similar thing yesterday, thinking about how different my two boys are. The older one struggles with attempting new things because of fear of failure, whereas the younger one is passionate about doing new things all the time, will have a go at anything, doesn't even notice if he doesn't get it right. As a child I was a lot like my older son. It occurred to me yesterday that I have a lot to learn from my younger one.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

It seems like younger siblings take more chances, doesn't it? We should all learn to write like younger siblings. :-)