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.)