Strange love: How I learned to stop worrying and love the dragon

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Failure is a perilous beast.

Today’s Quest 2016 prompt:

How would you do business as unusual in 2016 if you knew – no matter what you chose – you would not fail?~Debbie Millman

I think I’m getting ornery. I’m finding myself fighting some of these questions.

Thursday’s prompt asked us to imagine a year in which we made a commitment to a single question in return for a large fortune. This question strikes me as a different way of asking the same thing–if you were unburdened by fear (of lack of money in the first case, of failure in this), how would you do your work? In other words, how would you pursue your calling if there were no negative consequences?

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This is Scout. She may look cute and innocent, but she lives as if nothing had any consequences at all. EVER.

I don’t “do business” in any real sense of the word. As an unpublished writer, my work is about as far from the business world at this point as it could be. This is not to denigrate business–simply to say that I’m not there right now. So I have to broaden this question out in order for it to apply to me, here, now.

And my answer is this. I wouldn’t do anything differently. Not because I am so freakin’ awesome that I have got ALL THE ANSWERS. Simply because what I do is court failure. Every. single. day.

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Courting failure is a tricky proposition.

I write fantasy novels. I revise them. And revise them, and revise them, and swap them with critique partners and give them to beta readers and revise them some more. And then I cast my darlings out upon the tempest and wait to see if they will float or sink, if some pharaoh’s daughter will scoop them out, dripping and bedraggled, and fall in love with them and say, yes, you are worthy of saving.

This entire process is about failure, and rejection. And I’m okay with that, because that’s the way this works.

There was a time, years ago, when I was terrified to put my words out into the world. The thought of anyone reading them made my insides writhe. The thought of criticism was unbearable. But the wanting was greater than the fear, and the stories were stronger, too. They needed to get out. So I found a critique group, and on the first chapter I got back, one of my partners had written, “You use adverbs like a gas-guzzling truck.”

And I died.

And then I got over it.

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This monster is also kind of cuddly, apparently.

I will always love that woman for that comment, because it was in that moment of failure and criticism that I truly became a writer. When I got over the abject horror and devastation, a strange and wondrous alchemy began to take place within me. I learned to love criticism–to crave it, even, because without it, my stories would not be all that they could. I learned to live for the story as its own entity rather than force it to be subordinate to me, dependent upon my awesomeness and infallibility (if this was what stories wanted from me, they would be better off looking for pink sparkly flying unicorns). It’s like learning to really love another person–instead of building your own little ego-castle and shoring it up with their adoration, you realize that you would throw yourself under the bus for them, even if it hurt and/or made you look like an idiot.

I learn by failing–by screwing up, trying again, mucking that up, and then starting over. It’s how I’ve learned to do everything worthwhile.

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You have to take chances on dragons and socially awkward pups, as on everyone else. And sometimes, beautiful things happen.

I’ve been putting my work out into the publishing world for a few years now, and there’s no way I could do that if the fear of failure still had any real power over me. I think that failure is like a lot of other monsters–you defeat it not by crushing it but by loving it. It is like this neurotic little Jack Russell that has moved in with us, who is so bad sometimes and always so deeply socially awkward that we just have to love and love and love her, and understand that nothing will ever be perfect but that eventually some of the love will rub off. And that we will be changed more than she is in the process, because we are all people-shaped blobs of failure and love and we are messy and sometimes that is very, very beautiful.

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Failure comes in all sizes.

So that’s kind of rambling and maybe not really an answer. Because I won’t give up failure. I’m not sure I want to imagine a world without it. I’m a storyteller, after all, and in my book, a year with no failure is a year in which nothing happens.

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Getting cozy with Failure.
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11 thoughts on “Strange love: How I learned to stop worrying and love the dragon

  1. Love, love, love this. If we don’t fail we don’t grow. If we don’t grow we may as well give up. ❤ to you, your dragons, and your puppy.

  2. Holly from Quest 2016 here…I really loved reading this. I aim to get to the point where I am willing to bathe in criticism and submit writing regularly. I love the Jack Russell analogy, and enjoy your accessible and eloquent style. Thank you for reminding what writing practice is: practice, failure, rejection, rinse, repeat. And stay open.

    1. Thank you, Holly! Learning to love criticism definitely brings growing pains with it! But it really has amazed me how, after I got over the initial shock, I started longing for people to pick apart my writing so I could put it back together better than it was before.

  3. I feel like I’m your little sister (even though I’m pretty sure I’m older than you by several years!) and I get to watch how you’re doing this whole “writer thing” about 10-15 steps behind you, trying hard to walk in your footsteps. I’m in the process of getting an essay all critiqued, and last year this process would have crushed my spirit completely. Even though it’s been gentle and kind, my baby writer ego couldn’t have handled it. But today? I’m really grateful that there are those willing to read my words, get out a red pen and mark it all up because they’re only trying to make it better. What wonderful people! I’m taking my little baby writer steps, holding onto the people (like you!) who I’ve met along the way. As if they’re the soft edges of a couch ready to catch me as I toddle around and then fall having just enough courage to pick myself up again only to land on my bum a few steps farther along. But eventually, this failure will teach me how to walk with confidence and to eventually run, right? I’m loving your takes on these Quest prompts. Keep them coming!

    1. Barb, I am so proud of you!!! Way to put your writing out in the world! Your stories and perspective are vital, and I’m so happy that you’re being BRAVE and VALIANT and getting them out there for people to read! Go, you! You should definitely celebrate this. And I’m your big sister, so you have to listen to me. 😉

  4. I think “Pharaoh’s Daughter” would be a fabulous name for our publishing company.
    Much to honor and keep here Brenna. And as usual, we run in the same vein on this question. I am finally posting this morning. Glad I wrote before reading you. Glad I can link to you. Glad we are in this soup together. xoxooS

    1. Oh, Suzi, that is a perfect name for a publishing company! I like this thought…….Your darkness-and-light posts are really striking a chord for me in this season. Thanks so much for doing what you do and lighting the way for the rest of us. ❤

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