I’m about to tell you something you won’t like to hear. Are you braced?
Here it is: You will fail. “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” (Casablanca, 1942). It is an unavoidable fact that no one can get through life without failing. Most of us can’t get through a day without failing, failing to keep our tempers, to remember to mail the letter, to land an agent even after the hundredth query letter.
Nobody likes to fail. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. It can also wound our sense of self. I am a writer. If I fail in a writing project, am I failing at being me?
On the face of it, failure is a bad thing. It hurts, it depresses, it sets you back. And yet, Truman Capote the father of the nonfiction novel once said, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” I suppose you could argue that only by failing do we truly value success, but that’s not much comfort when you’re looking at a rejection letter or contemplating starting that painting over from scratch.
So before you hit delete or start scraping paint of of your canvas, stop, and really look at what you have done. You failed. Okay. Set that feeling aside for a moment, and think about what you can learn from this failing. Everyone knows the Thomas Edison quote about finding 10,000 ways that won’t work, but you only recognize those ways if you are comfortable living with failure. You have to learn to look failure in the eye.
Ask yourself three questions:
1) What parts of this didn’t work? Usually failure is not absolute. Your colors were off but the composition is fine. Once character falls flat, but the plot is solid. To say “this failed it’s all chaff,” is unfair to you and to the work.
2) What parts of this did work? Even if it’s one sentence, find it and recognize it for the good work it is. Why did this work? How can you infuse this into the rest of the piece?
3) Where do I go from here? Failure can only defeat you if you let it keep you from moving forward. Once you know what worked and what didn’t, plot a strategy for your second attempt.
* Title from Samuel Beckett‘s Worstward Ho