Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Failure: The Path To Success

When you are a writer you have to get used to failure -- lots of failure. But that's a good thing. The path to success is lined with failure. If you haven't failed you aren't really trying.

Few writers just walk onto life's stage with an agent, a contract, and a publisher. We usually spend years honing our craft and collect stacks of rejection slips for short stories, articles, and essays. Some of us get a degree in English, journalism, or creative writing, while others of us get our education in the school of hard knocks. I have seen many an educated writer start waving their degree in frustration when their writing expectations aren't met when they meet the real world.

Being academically correct in your writing doesn't guarantee a thing in the real world of writing. At the other end of the spectrum is the writer who is functionally illiterate but thinks having a great idea and getting it on paper is enough.

Whichever path you are on as a writer you have to put in the work, accept your failures and learn from them. Learn the difference between constructive and non-constructive criticism and discover for yourself when to accept and make use of the criticism and when to stay your course.

Back in the days when all manuscripts were sent by snail mail I received a rejection slip from Redbook magazine that I still have to this day. It was one of those form notes that publications sent out by the millions to writers. I kept it because someone had taken the time to add a handwritten scrawl at the bottom of how much they liked my story, though it still needed work, it just wasn't right for their magazine. It was one of those failures that contained just enough victory to give me hope.

When I was in junior high I had an English teacher who was extremely supportive of my writing dreams. In high school I had a creative writing teacher who said that I was a derivative hack who would never amount to anything as a writer. My father hated my writing, sure that I was just out to try to become famous and would shun dealing with the real world in favor of the dream. My stepmother went through my scribblings (without permission) while I was away at college and was sure I was deluding myself because my stories never seemed to have endings. A psychic told me that I would never write except to please myself, indicating that I would never be a successful, paid writer.

I had to shut down all of the voices that were out there encouraging me to fail. I had to follow what I knew was right for me, no matter what. I wrote piles and piles of utter garbage. It took a long time, but my writing started getting better, more original, and cleaner. Every time I got an idea I wrote it down. Every time I stopped writing a story, with or without an ending, I started another one.

There is that old cliche out there that says "failure is not an option." While that makes a great movie tag line, it doesn't wash for most of what we face in life. Failures create the steps we need to climb to move upward.

Failure helps us know when to make changes to make something better.  Failures can tell us when to let go of one story or poem and move on to the next. Sometimes all it tells us is to try again.

Years ago I wrote a poem comparing myself to a butterfly, having shut myself into a protective cocoon of my own making and now choosing to break out and flex my wings. It was short and pithy and good. So I sent it into a contest. It did not win. Not only did it not win, a note from the judge was scrawled on it telling me how awful the poem was. The poem was too short, the lines were too short, it was boring and so forth.  I took everything the judge said into consideration and ultimately decided that the judge was wrong. A year or two later I entered the poem into a contest again. This time I won first place.

Another time I sent a poem to a contest that told the tale of the first time my mother tried to show me a rainbow. I couldn't see it. I kept looking for a ribbon tied in a bow somewhere up in the sky. It just didn't take. The judge in this case wrote a note that the total poem was implausible and that of course a child would be able to see a rainbow.

My point here is that the person reading your work is just as prone to failure as you are. Just because they are in some elevated position over you does not necessarily mean squat, be it judge or editor. Sometimes they get it wrong too. That includes with your work.

When something is not performing I set it aside sometimes for a few days, sometimes for a few years. When I take it out again I see it with fresh eyes and can make more critical changes with a bit of perspective. Some things go back in the "vault" while others get reworked and are sent out into the world again.

"Failure" can encompass a world of things that aren't so personal either. I sent a poem in to Poetry.com for a "contest." They told me I won some level of prize for. Then they wanted me to buy the book to see my work. I realized that this failure was learning that the site was not truly legit. This was especially shown to be the case when they kept sending me emails trying to get me to buy other stuff. Most notably was them trying to get me to purchase a lovely copy of my poem mounted on some sort of plaque that I would be able to display to the world. This may have worked if I had only had the one poem in me. Instead I have written over 1,000 poems, many of which have won legitimate cash prizes. So this failure was just a learning process to never, ever deal with them again.

So, while I am still on my journey to be able to support myself full time as a writer, I have climbed on top of a considerable pile of failures to be able to reach higher than I could before.

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