No one knows quite how to fail like a writer. Each day brings with it wrong turns, doubts, swaths of deletions, endless rejiggerings, and even the thought of giving up entirely.
“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars,” Flaubert said.
There’s an inherent chasm between the book in your mind and the one you manage to get onto paper. It’s difficult not to measure your words against an ideal of your vision, not to mention the works of your favorite authors, so your words inevitably resist singing in the way you want them to.
You might actually say writing is a special training ground of failure. “Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time,” said Philip Roth, who won such awards as the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his “failures”.
Perhaps “fail” isn’t quite the right word, though. The word “fail” is fraught with negativity, catastrophe, and downright shame, but failure, especially in writing, isn’t necessarily any of those things. In fact, failure can be the breeding ground of innovation.
How so, you say?
Consider Thomas Edison’s approach to failure: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Edison viewed failure as just another part of the scientific process, and the scientific process isn’t all that different from writing a novel. At the heart of both is the question, “What if?” Both include theories followed by tests. For example, a scientist might ask what would happen if a person fell into a black hole (a good science question that is also a good novel question), whereas a novelist might ask what will happen if my main character decides to call the married man she’s in love with? Or, to ask a question of narrative technique, what if I interrupt the chronology of the story with a flashback to tell the character’s back story? Or you might experiment with perspective. What if I write this story in the second person, or from different characters’ point of view?
That’s one of the beauties of National Novel Writing Month: it encourages such risk taking. Its credo is that if you trust in your intuition, immerse yourself in your story, focus on moving your story forward, and banish the notion of making mistakes, you’ll experiment in ways that you might not have.
Samuel Beckett famously wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” The quote has been wrested from his oblique and gloomy experimental work Worstward Ho, and Beckett didn’t have any intention for it to become the inspirational mantra it’s become, but this notion to “fail better” is interesting to ponder. It’s a Zen koan of sorts that demands individual interpretation.
For me, to “fail better” is an invitation to experiment, to pause and truly scrutinize your story. Are you holding back from what’s truly at stake in the story? Are you being too nice to your characters? Have you allowed yourself to truly push your language? Or perhaps you’re suffering from the dreaded notion of the “right way to do things,” which has plagued many a writer. With all the how-to-write books available, it’s easy to think that you need to write your story correctly, according to others’ rules. But in the end this is your story. You have to write it your way.
Failing better is also a matter of ridding oneself of the fear of failure. That fear fences one in and doesn’t allow for creative risks. Imagine if Virginia Woolf feared writing with the lyrical stream of consciousness that opened windows into her characters’ interior lives? Or if Vincent van Gogh feared that people would see his paintings as smudges of color instead of vibrant representations of his fiery spiritual state? Woolf and Van Gogh each had to go through Edison’s 10,000 experiments to master their groundbreaking approaches.
Failing better is a creative mindset that must be nurtured. In psychologist Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she explores the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits,” writes Dweck. One is born a great athlete or a great author or a great mathematician. In a “growth mindset,” however, “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work,” says Dweck.
If you establish a growth mindset, in other words, you view failure as just another part of the creative journey, not as a roadblock, not as a damnation of your talents or you as a person. As C.S. Lewis said, “Failures are the finger posts on the road to achievement.”
So what is failing better? Maybe it’s just openness, the desire to see, and in seeing to learn, to begin again, always. That is where the joy of life and creativity reside—in the constant testing, the constant searching. Failing better is an attitude of always moving forward, of looking around the next corner. It’s a mindset of not looking for rules, but of following one’s curiosity. It’s a mentality of fun, of self-reflection, of privileging the integrity and unique personality of your story.
Failing better is also doing what you’re afraid of. For many writers, this might be making your work public, whether that means giving it to others for feedback, submitting it for publication, or reading in public.
For years—no, for decades—I wouldn’t read my work in public. I told myself it was because I wrote my stories to be read, not performed. That was true, but the larger truth was that I was afraid to read in public. Finally, I was forced to read, and in doing so, I learned what stories resonated most with people. I learned what they listened to and when they tuned out. I also met other writers and developed a writing community, which helps me fail and succeed better every day.
“Failing better” is the exact opposite of “failing worse”. Failing worse is failing from a lack of effort or a lack of imagination or a lack of verve. Failing worse is comparing yourself to other people’s talent or accomplishments and deeming yourself on the short side of things. Failing worse is not testing the limits of what’s possible.
Failure, the failure of constant experimentation, is the thrust of a writer’s life. “Failure is easy,” said Anne Enright. “I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do.”
John McPhee once famously tied himself to his chair to to force himself to face such failures. One must be obstinate, intrepid, and maybe even a bit reckless, for if we aren’t, we’ll reside in a “safe place” that doesn’t yield the results we desire or dream of. As Einstein was said to have remarked, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Risking mistakes offers us the opportunity to do things differently, to explore beyond where we thought we were going, to include the spicy element of chance into our work. You can’t create anything good without mistakes. Mistakes are a foundation of art and creativity, so you should search them out.
“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before,” Neil Gaiman counseled writers.
Writing through failure in the search of beauty is what makes writers such a rare breed. We’ve chosen to practice an art that is so challenging that it practically damns us (or it can feel that way). We’re so often alone with our words, and write without much approbation, or never enough of it, but even as our words fizzle, even as our plots falter, we show up to fix things, and fix them again and again. We know that with enough tinkering, with enough alchemy, with enough moving things around and shaking things up, we can capture the elusive beauty of the story at hand. We can fail better.