Or, if as happened earlier this month on my second outdoor walk of the spring, fall down once on an icy patch in the shade on Charles Jordan Road, get up, and don’t fall down again. But falling down—failing—is so much a part of writing, both the practice and the publication, I usually feel that in my coccyx, too.
There’s plenty of salutary advice about failing, most of it true, but I don’t know any human activity that I care about that’s more prone to failure than writing. You start with an idea in your head, perfectly formed and beautiful, and by the time you have it out on the page it is a weak and pale simulacrum of what you planned. No matter how hard you try, how good your chops, the realization never meets the expectation, as my old boss at Lodgen’s Market used to say.
Once you’ve accepted that failure is integral, though, you are freed completely. You can try new techniques, understanding that they’re not likely to work anyway. You can take on topics you never thought you would, free yourself from your own preconceptions about the only things you care about. The freeing also keeps you from developing anything like writer’s block.
William Stafford, the great Oregon poet, had the ultimate solution to writer’s block: “Lower your expectations.” Or in earthier terms, write the crap. Dump out the words and the story without regard to beauty or truth. You can’t revise what isn’t on the page.
I am a fan of Beckett’s quote, however, which adds a key element to the notion of failing.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Two key points here. First is “No matter.” It doesn’t matter that you’ve failed. What you have done, what is past, what failures you’ve already endured, are nothing. You can’t let them infect your present and your future work.
Second? “Fail better.” Which requires you not to shy away from your failures but to inspect them, diagnose them for the flaw or flaws that made them fail. So that when you fail again—as you inevitably will—you will fail in a way that means you’ve learned something. You’ve moved forward.
And if failing as a writer to get exactly what you want to convey on the page isn’t enough for you, you could always try writing for publication, where the failure rate is high enough to deter all but the brave hearted (or terminally stubborn). I think of writing for publication as a step you take when you aren’t satisfied with talking to yourself on the page any more, when you believe what you have to say is entertaining, useful, or both. You calculate the exponentially higher failure rate and measure it against the possibility of reaching readers and decided it’s worth it.
But with all the extra failures lurking in the attempt to publish, the risk of developing imposter’s syndrome is dire. You publish something once, and because success is so rare you believe it’s a fluke, that it can never happen again. And because it can take so long for success to come around and kiss you on the cheek again, your daily sense of yourself is as a failure, an imposter. It is useful, however, to remember that the only people who don’t feel imposter’s syndrome are the actual imposters.
Conclusion? How do you live with constant failure? Embrace the process, not the product, take your pleasure in the daily work and effort, enjoy (!) the falling down and getting up again. Because what’s even more perverse than all the failure you’ll experience, the occasional sign of success you receive will often come to you for the wrong piece of writing and the wrong reason altogether. Which I suppose is just another way of falling up . . .