How to Fail, Part 1: Why is failing so hard?

I don’t know…I have visions of people breaking down in tears…”How could you say something so harsh?!?”

What’s a normal response to failure?

Upset, despair, grief, horror, shame…?

What’s an abnormal response to failure?

Celebration!  Amazement!  Breaking out the champagne!

And so we try to avoid failure and gravitate toward success, because failure feels bad, and success feels good.

But you can’t succeed without failing.

Rationally, we all know that 1) nobody’s perfect and 2) if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  You are practically guaranteed not to succeed at your first try or, if you do, have no idea how to succeed on your second.

Writers tend to have a huge problem with this.  I had a huge problem with this, so I decided to fix that.  I looked at my reactions to failure and said, “My hatred of getting rejection letters goes waaaay beyond the rational.”  I’ve gotten over it, mostly.  I still have days where I’ve had one too rejection too many, or I’m stuck on a story, and I just want to give up.  But I’m not frozen for weeks.  My fear of failure doesn’t stop me from sending out another submission or getting up the next morning and trying to write again.

I do see writers frozen by that fear.  They might not sound like they’re afraid.  They have all kinds of explanations for why they’re not really afraid, they’re something else.  They’re too busy.  They’re not good enough.  They just have a liiiiiiiiiittle bit more editing to do…it’s only been seven years since their first draft after all, and everyone knows that you shouldn’t rush your writing.

I’ve used all those excuses and more.  (Although that book was only four years old before I started sending it out.)

Failing is hard.  It feels bad, and we don’t like it.

We like to win, we like to succeed, we like to be admired, we like to be…right.

We like to be right so much that some of us would rather DIE than be wrong.  We can’t usually tell that we’re wrong until after the fact. And when we do find out that we’re wrong, the horrible reality of failure comes crashing down on us, and we’re paralyzed.

However, we can easily tell when someone else is wrong.  We see the huge resistance they have to failing, and we can see that if they’d just take a minute and really think about what they were doing, they’d probably succeed.

But when you’re inside that situation, you can’t see that.  And so you blame everyone else.  As a writer, you don’t succeed because nobody appreciates you.  Because the market is bad.  Because the economy is bad.  Because people like to read stupid books, not your magnum opus.  Because stupid TV stars are getting all the book contracts.  Because there are forces against you.

We’re writers.  We don’t just fail, we create a story that explains our failures in terms that we, as writers, can understand.  Like this:

The Tale of Cinderwriter

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful writer whose stepsisters made them work at a soul-killing office job all day, leaving the writer no time to write, and whenever the writer tried to get published, the evil stepsisters would steal all the writer’s letters and send back cruel rejection notes!  It was a terrible situation; however, the writer knew that someday, their True Audience would come and rescue them from poverty and despair…*

As writers, I think we want to believe that our arc as writers starts out low and gets gradually higher and higher, until we meet our final foe and vanquish it utterly, after which we live happily ever after.  You know, a regular plot arc.  Isn’t that how real life works?


It’s so very, very hard to fail because, on top of everything else, real life doesn’t fit the damned story.  When you get rejected, your plot arc doesn’t go up, and it’s not like you can go out and stab the editor to defeat them.

You don’t start out as a beautiful, perfect writer that nobody appreciates but should.  You don’t start out as being oppressed by your evil stepsisters, evil agents, or evil publishers.  You start out as…sorry…as not a success.  That is, as a failure.

That’s okay.  Pretty much everyone who has the determination to write can get published, somehow, somewhere.  You may not succeed to the extent you want to succeed, but as long as you don’t give up–and that includes making excuses for why you’re not succeeding or refusing to change what you’re doing now–you will find some measure of success.

Next time:  We’re not failing too much; we’re not failing enough.

*That was kind of fun. I might do some more of those. Suggestions? How about Die Hard Writer?

4 thoughts on “How to Fail, Part 1: Why is failing so hard?”

  1. Good post. I think people are afraid to talk about their failures because they get paranoid about other people view them. Everyone wants to be successful, right? For people that are on the top of the proverbial word chain, it doesn’t seem like they struggle, that their projects and words come effortlessly.

    The reality is very different and all writers need to deal with it somehow. Since writing is such a solitary activity, I applaud those who talk about stumbling and getting back up. There’s a big difference between whining and doing nothing versus being pragmatic or opportunistic.

    But you’re right…we really don’t have control over our fate in publishing — even if we keep at it. If you can get past that fear of never being optioned or writing a NYT bestseller or whatever the case may be, then good for you.

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  3. You’re not the type to give up. You are already succeeding, and even more people will read and like what you write if you keep going. Keep going 🙂

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