Fail Again, Fail Better

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure as part of writing. This can be a professional setback (the publisher you wanted said no, you didn’t get the grant or the fellowship, that magazine turned you down even though you sent what you feel is your best work) or the small scared suspicion that what you are working on isn’t worth doing. One is semi-public, the other completely private. Both can stop you in your tracks.

And both are part of the life you have chosen. Everyone around you is experiencing the same thing.

Last summer, I was teaching a week-long writing intensive with craft talks as part of the student experience. That day, an agent and an editor had been invited to speak. One of them said something offhand about rejection, how common it is, how unavoidable. The interviewer, smiling ruefully, muttered almost to himself “yeah, and it never stops.” I want to tell this story because this is a writer who published his first book twenty years ago, has been nominated for every major literary award in this country, and who has published in The New Yorker more than once. By any measure, more successful than most writers. But still, the little shake of the head, the sting of whatever he’d just had rejected. I didn’t ask. But I remembered it, as a talisman when I was rejected. It’s part of the life you’ve chosen.

Another story I’ve carried with me is from a close friend. When her father died, they found a rejection from a prominent American magazine for a story he’d written as a young man. The rejection was kind and encouraging. He kept it till he died. But he never wrote fiction again. That one rejection was enough to make him stop. What a terrible loss, for himself, possibly for readers. One failure, and he never tried again.

So my advice for this week is: fail. Know that failure will be constant, even when you find some success, which some of you will. But your success will be based on your persistence in the face of failure, not that you didn’t fail. And failure is part of what you’ve chosen. Keep at it in spite of rejection. Don’t be defensive about it either. If something is rejected over and over, revise it. If a rejection is friendly, with some feedback, ponder the feedback. They might be right. And they might not be. But give it some thought.

Quoting Samuel Beckett: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.