Incorporating Failure

Today, I taught a class of students who were preparing portfolios of the work they had done over the course of the semester. We spent the class going over the portfolios, discussing how they could better organized the documents they were going to incorporate, that sort of thing. I found that many of them were leaving out documents they thought did not represent their best work.

And so I gave a sort of impromptu lecture on the importance of incorporating failure.

I mentioned the importance of failure in the blog post “Thoughts on Writing,” which I posted earlier this week. But I want to emphasize it again because I believe it’s particularly important for writers. Here’s what I believe about failure:

You’re going to fail.

You’re going to fail a lot.

And that’s good, because no one ever succeeded at anything worthwhile without failing at it. Every time you write a story, you will have discovered ways not to write that story. Those ways will be your drafts, and in a sense they will be failures. They will never be published, unless you are T.S. Eliot and someone publishes your original draft of The Waste Land (which, by the way, is just embarrassing) before Ezra Pound came along and fixed it for you.

Some years ago, there was an exhibit of Pablo Picasso’s paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts. It was an enormous exhibit. The most fascinating paintings were the early ones, in which Picasso systematically went through the styles of both ancient and contemporary painters, imitating each one. I think he was learning what he could from them, incorporating their lessons and then passing on. In the process, he was also learning how not to be Picasso so that he could, eventually, be Picasso. In a sense, those paintings are failures. They are certainly not the paintings any museum would want to hang up as a Picasso. But they are fascinating for us as artists. (Let us go then, you and I. We artists. Having mentioned Eliot, I now have scraps of his poetry floating around in my head.)

So, assuming that I’m right and you’re going to fail (a lot, remember), you need to figure out how to accept failure. How to fit it into the narrative of your self and your art (since we all create narratives, and narratives are how we understand the world). What story will you tell yourself about failure? (Anthony Robins would be so proud of me here. I’m speaking like a motivational speaker. But also like a writer who knows that the world is a story we’re telling ourselves.)

Will you try to hide your failures? Or will you hold them up proudly, tell everyone: Hey, look, this is where I failed! In the larger effort of creating the art I wanted to create. This was my moment of failure, from which I learned – whatever it is you learned. How not to create a lightbulb, as Thomas Edison discovered (many times).

In which case you’re redefining failure. Because anything you learn from isn’t really a failure, is it? It’s simply another moment when you learned how to do whatever it is you wanted. I don’t think you learn more from failure than success. I think you can learn a great deal from success. But you can learn as much from failure. I know that I do.

(They say April is the cruelest month. All right, Eliot says so. There isn’t all that much of April left, and I’m glad. My work is going well, I’m going to meet my deadlines, but I’m very, very tired. I think May is going to be so much better.)

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7 Responses to Incorporating Failure

  1. John Stevens says:

    Very good post. It’s funny, J. M. McDermott wrote something about this over at Apex not too long ago: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/2011/04/people-fail-all-the-tim/ . Taken together, I find myself oddly heartened by both of your messages.

  2. Emily Gilman says:

    I think lately, at least in my writing, I’ve incorporated failure by redefining my goals. Most drafts will fail at being successful stories, but they don’t need to be successful stories (or so I tell myself)–they need to be successful drafts. And so I try to approach each draft with my main goal being to improve upon the previous draft; as long as a draft is better than its predecessor it is a successful draft, even if it fails as a story.

    I think I need to do this because I’m a perfectionist, and not getting things right the first time really really bugs me; at the same time, as a teacher and a tutor (and yes, okay, as a writer) I’m really invested in the idea of writing as a process. Focusing on improvements from draft to draft gives me a way to assess my learning and where I am in a task without getting too discouraged by how far I still have to go. When I write a first draft that mostly doesn’t work, it is still better than no draft at all. And when I write a second draft that fixes some problems from my first draft but not others (or creates others), well, I’m still learning, and it’s still an improvement.

    I also have this sort of assumption that someday, if I am successful at this, I will end up sharing some of my “failure” drafts, but always in a very specific context: to show that the story that gets published is not what I write the first time, or even the seventh time. To explain that I might spend years getting it right. I think that’s important, because I know I still read books and think, “How on earth did they write this? I could never do that.” When it’s right it’s right, and knowing rationally that a lot of work must have gone into something is not the same as seeing the many drafts and changes that finally led to this finished product that seems so perfect and magical.

  3. Theodora — What a clear-eyed, compassionate reminder! I will be sharing this with my students in about an hour. Brava!

  4. Diatryma says:

    I will someday be asked about a challenge I have overcome, and right now, that requires context: a challenge that overcame me. I had one particular group project go wrong in really predictable ways, and for the next one, I made sure that didn’t happen. “I led the group and did not let any of them touch the final report SO THERE,” doesn’t mean nearly as much without what happened when I didn’t.

  5. I once saw William Blake’s edits in Tyger. Facinating. Obviously, the final draft was better. He learned how to be Blake. I think all people feel embarrassed about failure. Maybe it goes back to school and scoring low one tests. Whatever. Deal with it and learn.

  6. Your blog is so inspiring. Some writing days are total failures. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write these wonderful posts. Melinda aka Marigold

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