(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
When I read this piece of inspiration from Sara Zarr, it filled me with hope and assured me that maybe I’m not doing so badly after all. I hope it does the same for you:
I’m inspired by failure.
Which is a good thing, because right now I’ve got a first draft of a new book in front of me, and it feels like a massive pile of FAIL. (I should note: this is my book.)
This, I know, is a somewhat distorted version of reality. Oh, there’s good work here, the bones of something. And, in places, muscle, flesh, blood.
But it’s far from a success. And that’s exactly where it should be right about now. I’ve been doing this and observing others doing this, or things like this, long enough to know that every book, every painting, every dance, every song, every screenplay, every movie, every craft project lives most of its life as a failure.
The creative process, and the creative life, is mostly full of moments between the idea and the being done, the spark and the blazing fire, the shimmering magic and the finished piece. We’re always living in the gap between our vision of what could be and what might be, and what is.
Even typing that paragraph kind of breaks my heart. I want the writing life to be made of more moments of capturing the vision, and fewer of feeling it slip through my fingers, uncatchable as time.
I need all the reminders I can get that I’m not alone in that gap, that this is the nature of the work, this is what it is: learning to live with a certain degree of failure. (I’m intentionally using the cringe-inducing, scary F word. You know how some social, ethnic, or religious groups have “taken back” certain words, claimed them, and made new meaning? That’s sort of what I’m doing here.)
So, I seek out any place where I can hear other creative people talk about their failures and their fears. Those places include documentaries, interviews, essays, articles, blog posts, and maybe even tweets from fellow writers who, in 140 characters or less, reveal their moments in the gap.
When I hear Bob Fosse say that every time he choreographed a new show, he didn’t know how to move dancers across the stage…
When Anne Lamott writes about the completely confounding process of writing her second novel…
When John Lasseter talks about being fired from Disney before going on to make Toy Story—which, by the way, was a disaster in its first version, as was Toy Story 2, and also p.s. Monsters, Inc. didn’t “find its center for a very long time” and then became the highest grossing animated feature at the time…
When I remember that Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple… (Steve Jobs! Kicked out! OF APPLE.)
When I see artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude endure a quarter-century of obstacles before they were finally able to install The Gates…
When I read that the masters painted over their own work time and again when they felt their first attempts weren’t worth the canvas…
When I hear demo versions of just-okay songs that became gorgeous favorites…
Without risking failure, maybe even running headlong into it, there’s no chance for discovering something new and beautiful. Without wandering off the trail that the rest of the world is trudging on, we don’t know where we can go, what we can do, what’s out there beyond our current vision.
I’m reminded that the point of creating isn’t control.
The point isn’t saving yourself from embarrassment.
The point isn’t preserving an image of yourself dear to you, and/or dear to others, or earning out your advance or gritting your teeth as you check to see if your ranking, wherever, is ticking up.
The point isn’t avoiding failure.
We can’t. It’s inevitable. Those who finish what they start persevere through it, blow gently on those embers, tend to that first love, protect the shimmering magic, in hopes of…
…Insert your hopes here.
Maybe: To enflesh some truth—maybe beautiful truth or maybe not-so-beautiful truth—and the experience of living in this world, or a world in your imagination. To translate vision into whatever the medium of your craft is, for whatever your reasons are. To understand? To be understood? To ask questions well? To explore, maybe. To entertain, to show love, work out your demons. Or—gasp!—to have fun.
Whatever the answer is for you, there’s going to be a lot of failure along the way. In a way, “failure” is just another word for “the journey,” for not being there yet but on the way. It’s the road we walk on to get wherever it is we’re trying to go.
Today, I’m looking at my draft and its large and small failures, and I know: if everyone I admire and respect, everyone whose work has endured for more than five minutes, everyone who has come out with something beautiful, has struggled in this same, frightening gap, I must be on the right track.
Sara Zarr’s latest novel, How to Save a Life, came out in October.
You can find her online at sarazarr.com.
Follow @sarazarr on Twitter.