The Truth About Failure

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

Recently, a writer friend asked about my relationship with artistic failure and rejection. He was collecting advice from fellow practitioners to share with his students in a creative writing MFA program.

As I responded to his inquiry I was surprised to see how my own thoughts had shifted since I wrote a Submittable blog post on rejection. (Backstory: in January 2017, I was approached by agents about an essay I published in True Story about shooting guns with my father when I was a teenager. At the time, I thought, This is it. I’m going to get a book deal. Sadly, it was not my big break. Since those rejections, I have been heads-down writing a novel.)

My friend’s request for advice started with the type of blunt questions students always want answers to: What has been your most significant artistic failure and what effect has it had on your work today?

As artists, I think we’re always on the lookout for grand artistic failure — failure with a capital F — but the truth is, significant artistic failure calls for significant risk, and that is rare. After all these years, I think the only real failure is the failure to make art.

I don’t consider it failure when the result of a project doesn’t match the original vision. When accidents make space for discovery, that’s a good thing. If a mismatch between concept and execution occurs, it may indicate that the artist hasn’t thought through the task — or they may have attempted work beyond their skill level. These are teaching moments. You can’t know until you try. The only way to gain mastery is by doing the work and testing the theory.

The truth is, we don’t give subtle failures their due impact. To me, true failure results from habitual undermining — when we allow external influences to control our art. Whether it’s a day job, household duties, a spouse, family or friends, a slap of rejection or someone else’s opinion, failure happens when we let obligation drive a wedge between us and our practice. Sometimes, it sneaks up on us. We might talk about writing or painting or music, but we haven’t actually written or painted or played in a while.

When not-making art becomes a habit, the effort to start again seems insurmountable. Once the engine goes cold, it is easier to put off until tomorrow and tomorrow. Failure happens in increments, sometimes for seemingly good reasons. Deadlines. Paying the bills. Caring for family. A rare chance to sleep in. The enjoyment of a beautiful summer day. Suddenly, you’re miles away from making art, and you’re afraid you’re not good anymore. Fear convinces you that you’re safer doing something else, maybe even something necessary, like cleaning the house, going to work, or sleeping in when you’re exhausted. The pattern, once entrenched, is habitual failure.

The good news is that small, incremental art-making can be as potent as cumulative decline. Do you have 15 or 20 minutes a day? You can write 300 words. 300 x 365 = 109,500. Last year I wrote the first draft of a novel (160,000 words) by writing each morning before work between 5 and 6 am and on the weekends. Both failure and victory can be achieved in small doses.

My greatest Failure — with a capital F — was not writing for five years. My husband at the time read my journal without my permission and confronted me about the contents. I was struggling with our marriage; my doubts, fixed in ink, upset him. Despite the fact that he violated my privacy, I was the one who felt guilty and ashamed of what I had written. We both saw my writing as a betrayal. With time, we patched things up, but I was shipwrecked. I had no safe creative space to write freely. I knew that, no matter where I hid my journal, he would find it again and pry into my mind, even though he promised to respect my privacy.

That journal was an important outlet for me. It fed my other writing. Either I would have to edit my thoughts so that my writing didn’t upset my husband — or I wouldn’t write. So I didn’t write. Five years later when our marriage ended, my first act of independence was to buy a blank book and write what I felt, no holding back. It was the literary equivalent of screaming at the top of my lungs. It took three more years of stuttering on the page before I wrote productively. All told, I lost eight years of practice because I was afraid of creating things that would upset people. Those lost years in the prime of my writing life pain me today.

My friend’s second question is a good one for artists of any age to consider: What ways do you remain motivated to continue producing art in the face of rejection or failure?

In my experience, rejection is different from failure. Failure is not trying, not doing, not finishing. You will never learn from giving up or from not starting, but you can learn from rejection. Rejection is part of making art, not something to avoid. Rejection means that you are producing work and showing it to other people, both of which are integral to an artistic practice. When I receive feedback via rejection, I treat it like gold, especially if an editor took time when they could have been making art to help me. When awards or publications I was not selected for are announced, I study the people and projects that won so that I can learn from their success.

Sometimes, artists confuse market reality with rejection. This is especially true of writers. If you don’t write what a publisher knows how to sell, it’s not necessarily a mark on the worth or quality of your art. You have to research which publications publish work similar to what you write. If you write genre fiction and you think you can “wow” editors who publish essays or literary fiction, you’re wasting money, time and effort — yours and theirs. You’re also setting yourself up for repeated rejection that could prove demoralizing. That said, if you only receive rejections, you might trade off critique with a trusted peer, mentor or writing coach who understands your aims and can help you make stronger work.

(Disclaimer: the work you’re producing must be excellent, whatever its form. And — this is maybe the most important thing — commercialism is not talent. Some people mayare willing to (and can) shoehorn their art for sale or time the market. I’m not interested in that. I make what I make, I know my market, and if my art finds a home, great.)

I separate my art-making from art-submitting. Submission is the testing ground for the experiment. The thrill of acceptance is lovely (and fleeting), but in the dark of the morning, when it’s just me, my laptop and my steaming mug of coffee, what motivates me is craft, story, and emotion. I want to worm my way into the heart of things. I want to experiment with words to paint experiences powerful enough to shift a reader’s perception of living. I want to put complex, beautiful, gut-wrenching things into the world that connect people to their delightful, delicate humanity.

Where to send a piece of writing always comes second. My primary interest resides in crafting the artifact rather than placing work I haven’t written or completed yet. It would be nice to have a piece in VQR or Paris Review, that’s always in the back of my mind, but it’s not why I write.

Beneath the work, my practice is founded on experimentation, expansion, and education. I am a noodler. I want to try new things. I find generative workshops and classes motivating, especially ones that challenge me to write outside my genre or style. Cross-genre exploration deepens my work. Since I mostly write essays and fiction, I take poetry classes to focus on language and rhythm. I take workshops on sewing, letterpress and bookmaking — tactile practices versus cerebral. I set goals to finish a certain number of essays or stories in a year and create a schedule that allows time to make that work. I set goals for submission and networking. I set goals around reading — reading is research to see what someone else has found to be possible, or has already been tried. I also commit to reading my work out loud and meeting other writers in my community. Anyone can do these things. These goals are achievable, they are controllable, and they all go to support both writing practice and motivation. When I have a balance of these activities in play, I feel like I’m rolling in the right direction and, consequently, I see my work deepen and improve.

My friend’s last question — Have you, at any point, considered giving up on your particular craft? — brought me back to those lost years of not-writing. It’s not something I dwell on, but when I do flick a glance at it, it’s often triggered by a low moment. Someone else might have won a fellowship I’ve applied to for many years, and I’ve lost yet again, so I poke at myself. Or I compare my progress at age 44 with that of my peers who outstrip me (my Tin House workshop leader, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Anthony Doerr, and I are the same age) or writers younger than me who seem to be “ahead” in publication or awards, and appear often in local headlines.

Comparing yourself to other artists is about the worst thing you can do for your motivation, by the way. If we’re in competition with anyone, it’s ourselves — and time.

But losses do sometimes bother me. Given how hard I’ve worked in the last decade — I started writing again in earnest in 2009 — and knowing where I might be if I hadn’t lost those years, or if I had gone back to grad school to get an MFA…you can see where this is going. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

When I tap into that frustration, I remember what it felt like for my writing to be repressed. Every day I didn’t write, I boiled over inside, which deepened my misery. I couldn’t write, and I couldn’t talk about not-writing, so I drank until I passed out. Not because it was a writerly thing to do, but to numb my thoughts and perception of the world. I sank into depression and engaged in self-destructive behavior, hoping that the whole mess would explode because I couldn’t resolve it on my own. I was unable to be honest with anyone, including myself. I was dead in the water personally, professionally, and as an artist. After coming back from that, I will never quit writing again.

While my situation is different than setting aside writing due to rejection or failure, the commonality is allowing outside forces to come between me and my art. I was afraid that writing the truth would break my fragile marriage and ruin my life, but the truth was, my marriage was a problem — not writing about it, or feeling the way I did.

If making art is part of who you are, why would you let anyone’s commentary or judgment dissuade you? This is why inner motivation is important. If you are making art with the hopes of approval, validation, commercial success, eluding your problems, or quitting your day job to become rich and famous — think again. That’s why the rejection from those agents in 2017 hurt the way it did; for a second, I allowed my motivation for writing to shift into a hope for outside gain. I thought I would escape my problems if I sold my book.

I had to remind myself that the act of making art is both a means and end — and everything else comes second. I thought I had achieved a certain mastery, but I had to face the truth about making art: day-to-day craft requires constant sacrifice, commitment and hard work. Like Jimmy Duggan says in A League of Their Own, the hard is what makes it great.

The investment of 10,000-ish hours is real — and that’s just the start. If you’re not putting in regular time, you will never develop your voice. If you’re not struggling, you’re not learning. Struggle does not indicate failure or lack of talent. This is difficult for straight-A students like me to understand. We’re used to acing everything on the first try. It’s not just the grade we’re after, but bragging rights to the ease of mastery. Shrug — it was no big deal. Social media creates a false narrative around talent and success. People seem to “instantly” win something, but winning is the tip of the iceberg. The invisible 99% of a winner’s effort underpins the gleaming trophy at the top. How many hours a day do Lydia Davis or Beyonce or Yo-Yo Ma or Serena Williams practice their art? We see their creations but not the sweat equity that goes into them, including the parts and pieces they scrapped — and were still necessary to make the masterpiece.

Art looks easy when the work is excellent.

Ultimately, if your art is about expression, obsession, tapping into mystery, joy, pain, or discovering the world — practices that feed and inspire you as a human — chances are you will not let rejection turn into a failure to make art. If you remain inquisitive and open to life-long learning, you will make art no matter what. The true artist sees everything as material. She works from all aspects of life. Art can be small and quiet and still contain meaning.

Sustainable motivation for any art practice comes from an inner desire to experiment and test.

That’s it, really.

No one will ever care about your art as much you do. If you don’t fight for the space to poke at things, if you don’t make time to play, to be a scientist, if you don’t push yourself to grow and experience the world so that you can interpret what you see and feel — if you don’t take those big artistic risks in which you might fail with a capital F (if you’re lucky) — no one else will do it for you. No one will notice something missing if you don’t put art out there.

That’s the best and worst news: your art is in your hands — always.

Forget about gatekeepers and popularity. 
Forget awards. 
Make the thing you were born to make and worry later about where it’ll appear, if it does at all, or how much someone else loves or hates it.

Take feedback seriously, but only to the degree that it can help you grow. You only fail by not being yourself. Rejection is a sign that you’re producing work and putting it out there. It may not be ready yet, but it’s a step and, truly, unavoidable. And, actually, rejection is kind of glorious. It’s proof, like skinned knees, that you worked damned hard to stick that perfect landing.