Failure. Hmmmm. Well, I recently entered two contests and wasn’t selected. I’ve had agents who didn’t want me, editors who didn’t want my book(s), and enough negative reviews to be christened an author. I’ve also had the illustrious pleasure of receiving a small handful of emails from Wikipedia Historians telling me why I’m wrong about some research. Failure indeed. I’ve had lots of it, and suspect plenty more lies on the horizon.
For writers, failure is a four-letter word. We fear it, we dread it, and we try to avoid it at all costs. But perhaps we give it too much power. Maybe it’s best to run straight at it, helmet on. Learning how to cope with “failure” comes through loads of practice (sadly), but it also comes through two important skills a writer needs to survive:
ACCEPTING WHEN YOUR CRAFT NEEDS WORK This is really difficult sometimes because it involves listening to others who criticize your work, as well as learning to listen to your intuition. Our ego likes to make us feel that critical feedback is wrong, and that we just haven’t found the right audience yet. But in time, we learn to discern the difference between our ego and what our gut tells us. We learn to digest the feedback, and work on our problem areas one at a time. Finally, we learn to make good friends with humility.
Humility serves us well, not only making us kinder, more open-minded people, but it enables us to filter out the helpful advice embedded within the harsh feedback, negative reviews, or the ever-present “something to improve upon in our pages”.
DEVELOP YOUR OWN PHILOSOPHY OF FAILURE In spite of my many disappointments, rejections, and instances of failure, I’ve achieved some successes and happily work toward a growing portfolio. This came with a pound of flesh, but I don’t regret a single failure. They have forced me to dig deeply to remain connected with what drove me to write in the first place: a love of story. I’ve been forced to evolve to make my dreams happen. I’ve been forced to accept failure as a matter of course, not as an evaluation of who I am as a person, or as a measure of what I deserve. I have survived, in short, because I have developed my own philosophy of failure.
I must admit, my philosophy of failure changes the longer I write and the longer I work with publishers. To begin, I believe every attempt to achieve a writing goal that didn’t produce measurable positive results still gave me something that is more precious than anything tangible—it gave me experience. These experiences evolved into knowledge, and we all know knowledge is power.
But let’s be more concrete about this. Let’s look at “failure” from a numbers stand point. Writers are full of story ideas—loads of them. It’s impossible for publishers to buy everything we write, or to get on board with everything we love. There simply isn’t enough time or resources, or consumers for that matter. Therefore, everything we create won’t sell. This is why it’s imperative to WRITE ON, try new concepts, work on a new style or format. Challenge yourself. Keep going. Some ideas will strike a chord and some won’t.
Regardless of what happens with our books when they leave our desk, it’s our job as writers to keep developing stories that mean something to us on a deep, intangible level. It’s our job to explore and to push boundaries. We must weave our despair and angst and hope and joy into stories so others can relate to the characters that carry these messages. These are the stories that will succeed—and those that don’t succeed on a public level, feed our creative souls.
Writers write. It’s what we do. Failure is like death and taxes—all are a certainty. Failure wounds us, but that shouldn’t diminish our need to make sense of the world through words. Those wounds, instead, should make our need to create more powerful and urgent. So move failure off your hit list, and instead, consider it a measurement of your strength and skill.
What is your philosophy of failure?
Heather Webb is the international bestselling author of historical novels Becoming Josephine, Rodin’s Lover, Last Christmas in Paris, and The Phantom’s Apprentice, which have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and more, as well as received national starred reviews. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was selected as a Goodreads Top Pick, and in 2017, Last Christmas in Paris became a Globe and Mail bestseller. To date, Heather’s novels have sold in multiple countries worldwide. She is also a professional freelance editor, and teaches craft courses at a local college.