If you’re less than enchanted by the daily contents of your inbox, I highly recommend subscribing to writer/farmer/imperfectionist/beautiful soul Vanessa’s TinyLetter. This letter in particular has got me thinking about failure, but apparently not hard enough because it seems that this week, the universe has conspired to give me a series of very real reminders of what failure is all about.
But first, let me just put this right here:
I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.~John Keats
This week, I caught a swarm of bees, which all promptly died. The dog ended up at the vet with a UTI, bean beetles are partying in the garden like it’s 1999, and my work-in-progress needs a lot more work than I thought it did before it’s ready to query. The entire roof needs replacing, and I got an email informing me that my perfect teaching schedule may need to be changed. I hosted my first calling session for the local state delegate’s race, and got cussed out by a dude who is excessively unhappy that his phone number is a matter of public record. I’m massively grateful to the three other women who showed up to make phone calls, but mystified and disappointed by the many people who have the time to rant angrily about politics online but don’t have an hour to put their beliefs into action.
And as I type this very catalog, Thing 1 appears behind me in his typical ghostlike fashion and suddenly announces in my ear, “I put my tooth under my pillow last night and it’s still there.”
Failure is kind of my jam these days. I even have a dragon named Failure:
Failure the Dragon sits in my writing room, an ever-present reminder of what failure can be–not a terrifying beast, but an impetus for change. Something that, if not exactly cuddly, isn’t something to be avoided, either.
Of course, I’d prefer to be wildly successful in all my endeavors. But since that’s not possible, I’m trying to learn from the failures that present themselves. I’ve come to love critique (the serious kind, not the mean-spirited kind–even dragons have their limits). While I’d love to have written a perfect book (talk about mythical beasts!) on the first go, the reality is that there’s no such thing. Instead, there is my book–my story, imperfectly told–and it can be better. Critique is what gets it there.
Perhaps the biggest growth spurt for me as a writer over the past decade has been learning to accept critique, and to utilize it as the powerful tool it can be. There comes a point in a writer’s life, I think, when she has to put ego aside in order to be the best writer she can possibly be. The story won’t get better unless I invite in the dragons, unless I ask for it to be taken up and torn apart, and then I sit down to do the hard and messy work of putting it back together again. At some point I had to accept that I’m not the owner of a story, but its caregiver, and that means that I serve the story and not the other way around.
That’s how failure works, ideally. You learn from it. And I love learning, so I’m learning to get more comfortable with failure. Good thing, because it is rampant around here.
You would not believe how long I spent formatting the above image. I rest my case.
It’s still hard, though. The thing about failure is that while you learn to appreciate learning from it, it never really gets easier. Every rejection still stings. Every lost hive makes me question whether I should ditch my beekeeping aspirations. Every time I try to drum up volunteers I do so with a mixture of anticipation and dread. The dread is that no one will respond (or that the responses will be flippant), because what’s worse than failure, in the end, is silence.
Oh, Keats, you weird beautiful misogynistic infuriating soul, so often you just nail it. It’s better to try than to have to admit that you never did. But it’s still not easy.
I’m constantly trying to find the silver lining in my repertoire of failures. It’s funny how the dark twisty magic of failure works, how it can cast a pall over the good things, too. And how meta it can be–how failing at one thing can color everything else, how I can worry if I’m failing to deal with my failures, how I can wonder if focusing on failure is a failure in itself.
Ugh. Tricksy beastie.
I’m trying to be scientific about failure. I keep notes, like my charts of novel submissions:
Failure is also tricksy because it is a many-headed beastie. Sometimes failure looks like this:
And sometimes things start out hopefully, like this:
I learn something from each of these failures. They’re tiring. But I learn. And as my M.A. advisor loved to remind her students, “A certain sense of discomfort is necessary in order for learning to occur.”
I do love learning. So I keep plugging away. I think that, even in my grimmest moments, there’s a germ of hope at the core of it all. Otherwise, I think I’d quit. But that’s what persistence is–persevering when failure looms large, when it’s made itself comfortable on the couch and appears to have moved in for the long haul.
It’s about hope–the hope that I can make a difference, that the world can become a better place, that I can tell a story that reaches the people who need it. Perhaps the end of our own stories will be, “And yet, she persisted.”
Or maybe that’s just the beginning.