Friday, April 01, 2011

Fill the Well Friday: Fail

PHS Editor  and Harlequin Historical author Michelle Styles examines how actual failure can refill the well.
What paralyses authors many times is not failure but fear of failure. If you are afraid, you don't take risks. You over plan, destroying any spontenanity. You take the safe route over familiar ground but because these ideas have already been mined, your work becomes stale and unexciting. You cling to ideas that weren't strong, rather than admitting their weaknesses. You go into denial, convinced that somehow everything will work out.  Then you panic and everything spirals out of control as you try to grab the solution. Finally the thing that you have been seeking to avoid happens -- you crash and burn. You end up with a dry well and writer's block.
 Many authors are used to being straight A students. They are not used to failure, particularly public failure and actively seek to avoid it. The well runs dry because you are spending a lot of creative energy being afraid. Fear is probably the primary reason that people's creative wells run dry.
When you actually fail, you are forced to reassess -- how you work, what you are working towards and how you approach things.  You have nothing to lose and the only place to go is up. You are forced to let go of the fear of failure because you have failed. It has happened but you are breathing on the other side. You no longer cling to the illusion of success as that has been stripped from you. You are free to go out and create.
Twyla Tharp quotes Jerome Robbins in her brilliant book -- The Creative Habit -- you do your best work after your biggest disasters.
Tharp also points out that it is better to fail in private rather than in public. It is what self-editing is all about -- daring to admit you have failed and can write a bad page. Daring to take risks that don't quite work out and having the courage to recognise that enhances creativity rather than detracts from it. First drafts don't have to be perfect. You can take risks and pursue ideas that don't work out. Sometimes those failures lead to other pathways that you have never dreamt about.
As I have pointed out the Amadeus myth that Mozart never made mistakes, never practiced is a dangerous one. It is through failures that people learn.
Public failure can be harder, much harder. Sometimes public failure does mean you have to take a pen name as your sales tank. Weak sales are the most common reason for an author to be dropped. There again, look at Jayne Anne Krentz who ended up with three viable pen names (Jayne Castle, Jayne Anne Krentz and Amanda Quick)  after years of crashing and burning!
Failure can present opportunity. When I was a student, I heard the then world expert on Rodin give a lecture at my university. He thanked my university for failing to give him tenure as he would have stayed a not-very-good art lecturer at a college in the mid-west of the US. Instead, he was forced to think outside of the box, took another job as a curator and became famous, travelling the world and lecturing  about Rodin. The gist of his lecture was about seizing the opportunities that failure gave you. I have never forgotten it. Katie fforde tried and failed for years to get her work accepted by Harlequin. She is now a best selling novelist in single title. There are a legion of examples. It can be useful to collect those examples because...well... it is really easy to fall into the Amadeus trap. And knowing that other people have failed and come out the other side can be the tonic that makes you determined to succeed. It is what you do after the failure (and the period of mourning that accompanies failure) that counts.
 Failure can allow you to take risks. Failure forces you to reassess and re-examine. Failure can free you from fear.
Tharp also points out that people cling to success, but after failure, they are ready to move on and forget the humiliation that often accompanies public failure. The problem is that you do have to remember the why behind the failure and seek to grow.  Without that growth and change, you are doomed to repeat.  Panicking after a failure and seeking to get something, anything out there can be counter productive. Sometimes it is best to take your time and really stretch. You remember the wound but you allow it to heal. You go back into battle stronger and more able to deal with things that life throws at you.
Failure often stems one of several things -- skill (this is the easiest failure to sort -- acquire the skills needed. But sometimes people fear admitting that they don't have the necessary to make their ideas work), concept (the idea is weak and gets weaker but you fear to admit because well, then you'd be showing that you are not perfect),  judgement (you fear change and hold on to something that would have been best discarded), nerve (you are afraid of looking foolish and so hold back), repetition (you cling to the past because it was a success and you fear failing with something new but as Disney said -- you can't top pigs with pigs), and denial (you deny anything is wrong or stale because you fear failure). If you will note, mostly what causes failure is fear. 
 When you stop panicking, and dare to fail, your creativity can rush back in. You can see ways to stretch yourself. Your hubris stops and you can take the time to learn. You no longer have to go along familiar paths. You can take risks. You can admit your ideas were weak. You no longer have to get it right the first time. You no longer have to be perfect...because well you failed. Failure doesn't mean the end. It can mean the beginning.
If you haven't failed, then you are missing an opportunity to stretch your creative muscles.
And may your failure be private ones, rather than public ones. But failure always makes the success sweeter.
Note: it is April Fool's today and I thought about doing a practical joke or something on how laughter can refill the well, but really I think this is more important. Dare to fail!
You can read more about Michelle Styles's books on her website


  1. Michelle, you don't know how timely this post is! I'm about to scrap at least a couple of scenes of the wip and dive in anew. Now I'm feeling slightly energised at the thought rather than terrified.

  2. Brilliant post- guess it's not the failure that is important but more the daring to do so.

  3. Glad it helps Fi. And yes, you should be energised as you recognised what wasn't working. Failing privately is ALWAYS preferable.

    Lindsey -- I almost titled this post Daring to Fail but then thought Fail sounded stronger. Sometimes, it is only when you actually fail that you are able to let go. It is only when you admit the problem that you can work on the solution. When you have actually failed.

  4. Hi Michelle,

    Thanks for an amazing, thought provoking post!

  5. Great post (as always) Michelle. Very thought provoking. Thanks - Caroline x