Why Writers Need to Fail on a Regular Basis

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on August 24, 2015 • views: 1861

Skating Fall 2My older brother and I really enjoyed roller-skating when we were young kids (around seven to ten).

We were lucky enough to have a nice rink in our town, and a mom who was willing to invest in opportunities for us.

We both took lessons, but because we were three years apart in age, we had different teachers. Mine was the usual kind, careful type who wanted to encourage his young students and help them feel confident.

My brother Jim’s teacher? Not so much. He was a little more like a military instructor, which suited my brother just fine. (He went on to serve in the Coast Guard for years.) Both classes were on the rink at the same time, so I could hear Jim’s teacher’s booming voice as he shouted out instructions and rallied his little troops to excellence. Within a day’s time I was extremely grateful I had the kinder, gentler teacher.

My brother, though, was star-struck. He had to tell both my mom and me what his instructor often told his class:

“If you haven’t fallen today, you’re not trying.”

Jim thought that was a great philosophy, and put his energy into making his teacher proud. In other words, he went after his skating with gusto. If he didn’t fall on any particular day, he felt he had failed, and hadn’t tried hard enough to push himself. On the days he did fall, he would come off the rink thrilled with what he had learned and the new things he had accomplished, despite the scuffs on his jeans and t-shirt and the rink-burns on his skin.

Because of this approach, he often won the limbo game.

Me? I was the cautious one, the one who wanted nothing to do with falling. How humiliating! I understood what Jim’s teacher was going for. Trying new things, like crossing one leg over the other on turns, skating backwards, or bending low for the limbo, made it more likely we would fall, but also that we would get better more quickly.

That was great and all, but I preferred staying upright. I was afraid to push myself too far, for fear of being the object of ridicule in my class. I tried new things. I got better. But at a much slower rate than my brother.

We both went skating with our nephews last Christmas. It’s been many many years since those weekend lessons (never mind just how many). Jim can still skate backwards and do the limbo a lot better than I can, even all these years later.

Jim and I doing the "couples skate."

Jim and I doing the “couples skate.”

What did my caution get me? Relative safety at the time, but in the long run, zilch. I let my fear control me, and I cheated myself out of learning everything I might have learned.

What does all this have to do with writing?

A lot.

Are You Looking at Failure the Right Way?

How many times have you failed at writing?

As my brother’s skating teacher might have said if he were a writing coach: “If you can count them on one hand, you’re not trying hard enough.”

We writers think we should hang our heads when we get rejections, doubt ourselves when we struggle to finish a story, and second-guess our talent when we get bad reviews. These events, to us, are failures.

But that’s only because we’re looking at them the wrong way.

Falling down—or “failing”—is the clearest sign we can get that we’re going the right way. We often misinterpret the experience to mean we’re not cut out for this, or we don’t have the talent for it, or the creativity, or whatever.

Instead, we need so see our failures for what they truly are—signs that we’re trying, and trying hard.

Think of the “closet writer” who never finishes anything, never lets anyone read anything, never sends anything out, never has to endure the pain of a rejection. That person has it easy. That person can continue to imagine herself a great writer, a bestseller in the wings that will emerge one day when she finally completes that novel and gets a publisher. Of course, as long as she continues to fear failure, and only “imagine” her success, she will never do any of these things.

Now imagine the opposite type of writer, the one who writes and submits and writes and submits and takes classes and suffers rejection and overcomes discouragement and throws his stuff back out there again and again. The writer who publishes a book and gets bad reviews and goes on to publish another and another. These are the writers you hear about, the ones that eventually make the bestseller lists, the ones who can’t help but get better at their craft.

Because they keep trying. And they don’t mind falling down.

10 Ways Writers Wipe Out

When you’re skating, it’s easy to tell when you’ve wiped out. It’s not quite so clear-cut in writing. Sure, there are some things we all know about, but others we may mistakenly believe should cause us to doubt ourselves.

Here’s a list of ways a writer can wipe out on the floor. If you’ve experienced any of these or all of them, pat yourself on the back. Most likely you’re the one who will be winning the game in the long run.

  1. Receiving a rejection (or tens or hundreds of them).
  2. Suffering from writer’s block and thinking it means you’re no good.
  3. Having someone tell you you have no talent for writing…and believing it.
  4. Suffering self-doubt, perhaps on a daily basis.
  5. Struggling with the middle of a story or novel and fearing you’ll never finish it.
  6. Getting a bad review on a book or piece of writing.
  7. Having few to no people show up at your book signing.
  8. Deciding you’re going to quit because you’re not good enough.
  9. Failing to finalize or place in a contest.
  10. Finding it near impossible to get a publisher for your second book because your first book didn’t sell well.

Do you know of other ways a writer wipes out? Please share them with our readers.

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Comments (10)

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  1. I love the skating analogy. Yes, nothing risked, nothing gained, and at least with writing, you’re not in any danger of breaking some bones. Thanks for the injection of courage!

  2. Erin says:

    Thanks for this. Time for me to start sending out my work again!

  3. Chere Hagopian says:

    Wow, what a great philosophy! I think I’ll stop trying to avoid pain at all costs and go for it more. Thanks!!

  4. Great encouragement for any of us who write. Instead of trying to stay safe and be perfect, much better to go full out and suffer the bumps than never challenge ourselves and learn. Thank you for the reminder.

  5. Great article, Colleen. Came at the right time for me.
    I reached for the moon and submitted to Modern Love in the New York Times. Today, the piece was rejected in a kind way. I wasn’t surprised, but it still hurts. Now to decide the next place to submit the piece because I worked extra hard on it, had an editor read it, and think it’s worthy of going somewhere. Not my first choice, but somewhere. And also a decision about what to submit next to Modern Love.
    I’m also struggling with finding the thread into my next book. I’m doing lots of reading and a few writing experiments. Gotta be willing to fail and toss it in the recycle bin. I’ve learned a lot about that in the last five years.
    Thanks again.

  6. Great advice, and I love the photos. Thanks for the encouragement as I wait to hear back from submissions.