On February 1st of 2011 I wrote about the various definitions of “successful” and with six years passed, and two things appearing in front of me at more or less the same time, I thought it time to look at that subject again with the more negative connotation: failure.
First, I read Rivka Galchen’s article “Mo Willem’s Funny Failures” in the New Yorker, in which she told this story:
Willems’s books reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it. In “Elephants Cannot Dance!,” they can’t; in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does. Willems told me, “At ‘Sesame Street,’ they would give us these workshops about the importance of failure, but then in our skits all the characters had to be great at what they did, everything had to work out. That drove me crazy.” One of his most memorable sketches on “Sesame Street” was about a Muppet, Rosita, who wants to play the guitar; she isn’t very good, even by the end of the episode. Many artists talk about the importance of failure, but Willems seems particularly able to hold on to the conviction of it. He is a distinctly kind, mature, and thoughtful person to spend time with, and there was only one anecdote that he told me twice. It was about a feeling he had recently while walking his dog, a kind of warm humming feeling starting in his abdomen, which, he said, he had never had before. Was it happiness? I asked. He said no. He’d felt happiness before. This was something different. He said he thought that, for the first time ever, he was feeling success.
So if Mo Willems is struggling with this balance of success and failure, where does it leave us mere mortals?
Then I saw an email from Artist Trust advertising the seminar Fail Again. Fail Better: A Conversation on Artistic Failure held at the Northwest Film Forum on April 19th. Not wanting to fail at being there I acted quickly and scored two (free) tickets: one for me, and one for my recent college graduate/graphic designer daughter. Anxious to see what our different perspectives would get from this sort of program, we made the short trek into Seattle.
Here’s how the seminar was described:
Go on social media, and every day you’ll see artists winning awards, receiving big grants, and promoting their latest work. In a culture where likes, comments, and retweets are currency, good news spreads fast, but we rarely hear of the bad, the dark days when an artist’s project falls apart or their practice bottoms out. In this conversation, artists Valerie Curtis-Newton, Sheila Klein, Peter Mountford, and Ahamefule Oluo share their stories of failure, how they coped when they almost lost hope, and what they did to turn the trainwrecks into success.
The title for the seminar came from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Moderated by Artist Trust Program Director Brian McGuigan, the panel consisted of four equally funny, charming, and wise panelists: Peter Mountford, author of The Dismal Science: A Novel, Valerie Curtis-Newton of the University of Washington School of Drama and Founding Artistic Director of the Hansberry Project, visual artist Sheila Klein, and musician/composer/writer/performer Ahamefule Oluo. I was particularly enamored of the spread of disciplines represented and though author Peter Mountford ended up speaking more directly to my own experience there was an awful lot to learn from all four of them.
They all spoke openly about past failures, which take on very different forms in the various disciplines. Valerie Curtis-Newton told a cringeworthy story of a play she was involved in that went bad. There was a rule in place at the theater that if there were more people on stage than in the audience the actors didn’t have to go on, but with eight people on stage and only three in the audience one night they went on anyway, and two of the people in the audience fell asleep. That could definitely feel like a failure.
Oluo suggested figuring out a way to engineer a “controlled failure” after talking openly of his fear of embarrassment, which translates to a fear of failure. Interestingly he also told of his struggles in school, including flunking out of the same private art college my daughter graduated from.
Let’s bring this to writing, though. There’s some difference between writing a novel and trying to get it published, and once published, read; and writing, staging, and promoting a play, for instance . . . or so the panelists seemed to think. Visual artist Sheila Klein essentially just makes art and if she thinks its good she offers it for sale. If it sells, it’s successful—and though I’m radically paraphrasing there, isn’t that true of pretty much anything, including novels and short stories?
You write a novel or a short story. If you think it’s good you send it to an agent or editor. If it’s published it either finds an audience or it doesn’t.
But what was common for all four of these artists—for any artist in any medium—is the work comes first.
First, sit down and write it: the novel, the play, the song—or paint the painting, sculpt the sculpture, choreograph the ballet . . .
Someone, and my scrawled-in-the-dark notes failed me on who, recommended the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, which has gone on my wish list and tells of a study in which it was found that artists trying for quantity produced better work than artists going for quality. The latter group made less art, was less likely to finish, became entrenched in one idea, and were too often left “polishing a turd.”
Mountford affirmed that any artist, and as an author himself he’s speaking to us in particular, have to develop a “pile of failure”—an inventory of work—so each piece has less individual value.
Think of it like this: If you have three finished short stories and the first doesn’t sell you still have two more in circulation. If you write one short story and wait for it to sell before writing the next one you may never be published ever—you may not even ever get to write that second story. Write as many as you can—which also agrees with Dean Wesley Smith and Heinlein’s Rules—get them in circulation, and keep them there.
Think of it as basic supply and demand. If you only have one of something—one story—the perceived value of that story, for you, goes way up. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t share that same view, since editors are looking at the complete supply of stories—stories written by everybody, not just you. And there are a lot of those, believe me. So if you only have this one thing of value, if you’ve put all your eggs into one basket, any perceived “failure” can be both soul crushing and career crushing.
But if you have a bank of work and can start to see why one story didn’t work so the next story is a little better, you start playing the long game and those failures become educational, at least easier to survive, and not catastrophic. It’s easier to do the next project, and the next, etc. because this so-called “pile of failures” is an emotional buffer that keeps your head in the game—it keeps you writing.
And sometimes work can go from the failure pile to useful pile. Curtis-Newton said: “Enter the space knowing there are a million ideas” and you start to have choices. I loved it when she said that she’s willing to accept some degree of fear of success or failure, which is better than the idea of not doing art at all. She also recommended seeing every unsold piece as part of a “stockpile of failures.” I also loved that she had the wisdom to choose her battles, saying of a particular moment of staging: “It’s not art, but it can get me to art.” Not every bit of everything—every word, every sentence—has to be perfect. This is where a writer can get into that dangerous territory of putting too great a focus on “quality”—whatever that is—and run the danger of “polishing a turd.”
Afraid of failure if your book doesn’t sell? Of embarrassment of your book is met with negative reviews?
As my father would say: Walk it off.
Or in our case: Write it off.
“You have to be delusional,” Peter Mountford said. You have to think you’re great if you’re going to fail. “I sort of expect failure,” he went on, adding, “I look forward to rejection.”
And what inspired me the most, he said: “I’m publishing so I can have time to write and not have to get a job. Getting published is a means to an end, and the end is writing.”
Get writing, stay writing, and good luck with that stockpile of failures!
And hey, writers, wherever you live, hook into the artistic and literary community around you and go to things like this. And specifically for science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors, the sun doesn’t rise and set on your genre alone. Conventions aren’t enough. Expand your mind and your work will follow!