Thursday, December 2, 2010

Failure is Not Optional

(I've come across a number of discouraged writers lately, so I decided to interrupt my series on expectations and tropes with a post I wrote a few days ago.)

Everyone at our Thanksgiving dinner was "of a certain age" as the French say. We sat there, a bunch of old curmudgeons and inevitably the conversation turned to the subject of kids today.

You know: "Kids today have it so easy! They never had to walk to school in a blizzard up their waist, up hill both ways. And if you got lost you'd just have to slaughter your taun-taun and climb inside to stay warm. Because nobody'd rescue you. Just the wolves who come to eat you! Snow days, schmo-days! Kids today have it easy."

Except we weren't talking about kids. We were talking about grown ups. Our peers even. Kids today don't have it easy. They have it harder than kids have had it in ages, but they seem a whole lot less prepared. And their parents seem a whole lot less prepared too.

The thing we talked about most were our peers, though. I see so many writers these days who have a love-hate relationship with success.

One the one hand they seem to have a muted idea of the difference between themselves and the established pros. They know that star writers are talented, they know they work hard, but they can't really identify what it is that the pros do and they don't. They seem to think it's all some kind of magic. "Harlan Ellison was born with talent. I hope I have some talent too. Finger's crossed!"

I'm not saying these writers don't work hard. They do. They're dedicated to learning their craft, but they also seem to have their eyes closed while they work, as if they they don't want to know the secret. It's as if they're afraid of the truth. Maybe they're not so talented, but if they keep their eyes shut, they'll never know if they failed.

This, you would think, would at least allow them to develop naturally as a writer - to write with existential energy. To just sit down and do it. But alas, that's not how it seems to work.

The very same writers also seem to second guess themselves all the time. They get blocked, they get tied up in endless rewrites. They devote themselves to critique groups where they can get outside opinions of their work.

They're afraid to trust their judgment.

And they're right, because they've had their eyes closed so tightly to keep from seeing their own weaknesses, that they never developed good judgment anyway. And as a result they hide their born talent under a barrel, and they never reach their potential.

The path to success, and mastery, and enlightenment goes through one thing:


You have to fail. You can't avoid it. That's how you learn. That's how you gain the judgment and the sure skills that allow you to write like a virtuoso. Throw yourself into it, embrace it, let it be the direct experience of life.

Dean Wesley Smith just wrote a post on a similar subject "Dare To Be Bad!" and I suggest you go read it. I particularly like the part where he says he defeated his fear of failure by submitting his work to editors before taking it to his critique group. The group would tear it apart - and they would be right about the flaws - but he'd end up getting acceptances on some of them anyway.

Now, some of you may say "ah, but that just proves he's talented, because nobody accepts my work." Yeah, they won't accept your work if you don't submit it. And if you waste all your time rewriting, you won't write enough stories to get published. So read Dean's post, and then read all the comments too. (There's a lot more info in the comments - especially in his reaction to the people who say they throw away stories they write after they finish them. Dean submits such stories anyway, and then sits down and writes the story over. He's had a lot of success doing that.)

Seriously, read this post and the comments. I'll repeat the link: Dare To Be Bad!

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1 comment:

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Very good point here--we *have* to allow ourselves failures...and just chalk them up as learning experiences. Then we move on, more confident than before, and keep persevering.