How to Fail

I was led (via Twitter) by an educator named Debbie Reese, one of the people on the forefront of “We Need Diverse Books,” to a series of workshops on failure at an annual conference for game developers. As the article says:

[At a gaming conference] there is a strong success bias – you are not going to hear a lot of companies trumpet their failures. Failure, however, can be often be more instructive than success.

The same can be said of writing conferences. The keynotes are writers with “New York Times Bestelling Author” in front of their names, with awards and movie adaptations. We don’t see the worst-sellers speaking, but they have more wisdom — they know how to brace themselves for another disappointment, how to keep writing when you can’t make a living at it, and how to soldier on through a manuscript that might never find a single reader. They’ve weathered the storms and survived and can now tell us, like the wretched old man in that poem, about the albatross of regret.

Failure can mean lots of things in writing. A book that didn’t get published, a book that published and didn’t sell, a book that sold but got lambasted by reviewers, or even a book that did well on all accounts but still makes the writer cringe. There are PR disasters, author events where nobody shows, terrible interviews, and (for my crowd) school visits that make the author want to hit every bar on the way home.

But failures, mistakes, and bad experiences are learning experiences, and here is what I want to do: I want to destigmatize failure. I want writers to talk about their failures frankly, and what they learned from them.

I am going to make this a series, but won’t put an end point on it. One thing I’ve learned from past failures (remember the Mark Twain blog?) is to take these things slow.

But I’m going to put this idea out there now and solicit future interviewees or guest bloggers who can write about failure. It doesn’t even have to be about writing. Leave a comment or send me a message.

I am going to kick things off with my own story in a day or two.


6 thoughts on “How to Fail

  1. My first published book was the 9th manuscript I wrote. I’d already gotten a decent chuck of manuscript #10 written when I got an offer of representation for a story I’d somewhat dismissed already. I chalked up rejections for years, and have no idea why they didn’t bother me too much, other than the fact that I was, in part, expecting them because I knew I had (and still have) a long way to go in terms of learning about writing craft. I think part of me, as a stay-at-home-mom, just liked getting emails from NY agent folks, whether or not they were rejections. it made me feel like I was pursuing something–actively working on goals. I honestly think participating in competitive sports helped me out through all those rejections, because I knew what it was like to try your best and lose, then show up for practice again and again because you had the hopes of getting better and were motivated to do so because, heck, sports are fun.

  2. There’s so much to talk about here.

    I’ve been mainly defined as “the guy who quite screenwriting only to find success at the last minute and be saved by Amazon’s open submission process” which is true, and makes a great story for PR. But stories about failure are more often really stories about redemption, about the last-minute save, about bootstrapping yourself in some unrealistic, unrepeatable, heroic way that makes people feel good about their own failure. Often the advice seems to be “keep trying” and “don’t give up” as if you just have to run out the failure clock until success happens at the bell. DING!

    I think what people would be most surprised to find out is that even after the “success bell” rings, however you define it, whatever you think the breakthrough is, FAILURE KEEPS HAPPENING. Success doesn’t inoculate you to failure. If anything, it raises the stakes and exposes you to more of it.

  3. Every poet grows accustomed to failure, in the sense that we’re the poor stepchild of publishing. Hopefully, Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award, and Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Medal might begin to help readers see that poetry has its own unique way of succeeding, not necessarily linked to movie adaptations and sales figures.

  4. Kurtis,

    A note of clarification: I’m not part of the We Need Diverse Books team. I love the energy of the WNDB and the impact they are having! It makes me hopeful for what we’ll see in the coming years.

    Over the weekend, David Arnold, author of MOSQUITOLAND responded to an Open Letter I wrote some time back. This morning, I replied to him and noted your How To Fail post. Here’s that link:

  5. Hi! I just read about your series on the F word, Kurtis! Jenn Hubbard posted about it on her blog. This should be interesting. I have some imperial data on the subject. 🙂

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