You're a Big Failure


You're a Big Failure

I got your attention, didn't I? It's very rare for people to actually tell us that we've failed. And yet there's probably no more universal a feeling than the feeling of failure. It happens when we do badly on a test or lose a race; for writers and creative folks, it happens when we get that rejection in the mail, or just when we look at the great yawning gap between what we want to achieve and what we have actually done. There's no worse a feeling than when we fail, and we begin to doubt everything we're doing. We begin to think that one failure, or a series of failures, means we ourselves are failures; maybe there's just something fundamentally lacking and untalented in our cores.

The secret is, everyone is a big, flailing failure.

Attending a conference panel discussion on failure recently, I felt the whole audience breathing a sigh of relief as each accomplished, published, award-winning writer on the panel admitted to us that they, too, were failures. The writers told us about the days when everything seemed to be going wrong; when no one would read their work, or thought they could succeed. At that stage of their careers, they needed to hear about other people's failures, because it can be heartening, sometimes, to remember that other people go through this too.

We're all caterpillars, digesting our own bodies.

We've heard the metaphor before of being caterpillars that eventually become butterflies. But as one writer on this panel pointed out, we sometimes forget the grisly details of this pleasant-sounding analogy. When caterpillars metamorphosize, they don't just pop on a couple of wings. They have to completely change their body structures. They lose limbs and jaws and exoskeletons. They basically dissolve their own bodies, become a soup of molecules, and then re-arrange those molecules into a completely new form.

We sometimes forget how dramatic transformation really is, and how painful (and necessary) failure is along the way. When we hit the first failure, the first rejection or moment of doubt, we think, "Boy, that was pretty tough, but now it'll all go well." Then the next rejection comes, and the next. We think, "This stinks. I don't want this anymore." And so, so many people give up at this stage. Failure is more than a little unpleasant. It's grinding and demoralizing and awful. But the writers who succeed are the ones who pushed through the pain. The successful writers kept writing. That's pretty much the only common denominator of success. And no one can make you quit; that decision to give up, to be a failure once and forevermore, is going to be only up to you.

As you move up in your life and in success, each new level will feel unsatisfactory.

The other unfortunate truth of writing is that as you start getting accomplishments, you'll find yourself failing in brand new ways. That's why it's so important to keep looking back and seeing what you've accomplished. Two years ago you thought you've never, ever, get a story or poem published. It would just never happen. Now here you might be, with a story in a magazine. Now you want to get published again, or published in a more exclusive magazine. The rejections will come again, and those rejections will feel just as bad as the first ones did. It's a never-ending cycle, and it'll only feel good if you remember to celebrate your accomplishments.

That may sound like not much fun. But the good news is, success will come - if you keep growing and changing and snapping back like a willow tree after each wind storm. You want to succeed? Then you have to just keep snapping back. You have to keep writing. If that rejection comes in the mail, let yourself feel bad about it; let yourself mourn a little bit. But the next day, sit down at your computer and write something new. Send something out to another magazine. Offer to revise the work of a friend. Keep your connection to the writing community around you, or make a community of your own. And don't stop writing.