Guest Blog: What Inspires Sara Zarr

(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…

I’m reminded:

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

Sara Zarr’s latest novel, How to Save a Life, came out in October.

You can find her online at

Follow @sarazarr on Twitter.

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76 responses to “Guest Blog: What Inspires Sara Zarr”

  1. THANK YOU for this incredibly inspiring post! I’m no writer, but this post struck a chord with me as a person. It’s so easy to get caught up in all that goes on around us, that we forget that it’s okay to fail at something. Through failure we become better at whatever is we’re doing, and we learn what success is. It’s better to try and fail at something than to have never tried doing anything at all.


  2. This makes me feel so good. My husband keeps threatening to read my draft and I swear the thought make me want to hide the computer when he is home. It is sooooo terrible, as it should be, it’s a first draft!!! I keep trying to tell him that even published authors have terrible drafts and would never want anyone to read them, so thank you. I’ll have to show him this post. Now I am inspired to know that this might turn in to something readable someday.


  3. I don’t know what to say besides, yes, this. It’s so great to know that I’m not the only one wrestling with a Lindsay-Lohan-esque FAILURE of a manuscript. So nice to know that not everyone feels euphoria as they’re drafting a steaming piece of FAIL. And so wonderful to be reminded that this is only a step in the process, that it will get BETTER … that perhaps, one day, it might even become GOOD. That maybe, one day in the distant future, the spark that ignited this project will ignite into something worthy of all the fuel spent stoking its flames.


  4. Thanks for sharing. Sara Zarr is so inspirational. And what she says just makes me feel like I’m *not* crazy and that all artist/writers go through this process.


  5. What a lovely heartfelt tribute to failue — I used to be a research scientist before I became a writer and failure was simply part of life. But we learned more from the experiments that didn’t work out than the ones that went smoothly. And so it is with every book. I have been looking at a pallid scene today and it gives me hope that one day it will evervesce with spirit. Thank you. Vijaya


  6. I love this: “every project lives most of its life as a failure.”

    Today, Sara and Nova, I’ll take back this word and let my failure flag fly.


  7. Wow. Thank you for this…

    “Without risking failure, maybe even running headlong into it, there’s no chance for discovering something new and beautiful.”

    …and the whole darn post.


  8. So spot on excellent today I had to give you a shoutout on my blog. Thanks so much for the inspiration. . . .sitting at 17,774 words on day seven. . .life is good


  9. So much truth here! I often just stare at the page, knowing my vision, knowing how the words fall short, and feeling like anyone else could have made the two match.

    Thank you for this!


  10. I love this post. Sara makes me read better, write better, breathe better. Thanks to you both, NRS and SZ for this much-needed pause in my own f(l)ailing around tonight.


  11. In the middle of hell week for a production, I recognize the failure syndrome: things are too big – I wanted the lighting to be like the ERASURE tour, but not quite; I question my blocking, my sound choices, my makeup abilities, my knowledge of electronics… But I don’t question the people I have around me – my crew, cast, co-producer, assistant director. Yes, I do it for the fun; but also for the challenge. When the challenge appears too daunting, and I wonder why I chose THIS challenge, I will think of your post this week, and know I am in the company of others who think seriously about their fun and find rewards in problem-solving…even with hellish failure a lurking possibility.


  12. Inspiring. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Encouraging. Uplifting. Insightful.
    Made me think, made me laugh, made me sigh. Made me motivated!
    Thanks Sara for so much heart!


  13. Superb stuff. I will print this out and pin it to the wall next to my desk as a reminder. Such a positive perspective on the doubt and disappointment that seems to over shadow all work in progress. Thank you.


  14. This post made me want to cheer. It certainly made me smile. As someone who’s currently muddling through revisions on a book I simultaneously love and want to light on fire, thank you for writing this. It is inspiring, and I needed that kick in the pants. Beautifully written post.


  15. There are days (and this is one of them) when reading a post like this reminds me that I’m not alone – that there are many of us out there facing that page which reads like massive FAIL, but might, just might, have treasure underneath.



  16. Thank you, thank you, thank you! This post is so inspiring! I’m tearing up and at the same time I’m smiling. The gap can be so terrifying, and the worst part is feeling like no one else could possibly understand, but alas, fellow artists feel our pain and those in the past have shown us that we can perservere!

    Again, thank you!!!!


  17. I just want to say, “thank you!” A fellow writer/blogger friend passed a link to this post today because as I finish a first draft of a first novel, I am hit with a boatload of emotions, the majority being negatve. But this brings up another problem-these negative messages are not new. They have plagued me my whole life, and until now, have kept me from even making an attempt. It was the kindness of strangers, who offered a lending hand with posts like these, and other writers who read my words and told me to keep writing, that make me take one very tentative step at a time, but I’m finally walking forward!


  18. This: “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.” This is what I needed. Thank you, Sara.


  19. Everyone! Thank you SO MUCH for the comments. They mean a lot to me – and it’s great to feel so understood and in such great company. xo.


  20. I love this, Sara. And thank you. It will be wonderful to keep your wise words in my pocket and share them with others. Creatives are so afraid of failure. It’s only a place to start! Great post.


  21. Hi, this is the best version I’ve read about the creative journey (and the gap between the incompleteness of the project and polished result). Harry Truman had job failures, one after another up until he was age 30. Winston Churchill was rejected four times from college. I read Anne LaMott’s book & use her guidelines (Bird by Bird), and glad you mentioned her.

    Yesterday I had the opportunity to share with first grade children a sloppy draft of a story in progress. Lots of feedback as they responded to the illustrations!


  22. I too know pain,heartaches,failure,headaches,depression,repression,suppression, and all and everything in-between. My first novel was printed exactly as was sent. (no editing) then the pub. claiming thats the way I wanted it. Then they only printed a quarter of my book, “What do I expect for free”, they said. I expect an editing and the full story. So after 189 agents and fifty Pub. houses contacting. only a few even responding. Do I give up? It’s tempting. I think like most books it will fade into obscurity and oblivion. Who knows maybe someone will read it and make a movie. I would dearly love to see it up on the big screen. But. I will (as I can’t remember who said it) but trudge,trudge,trudge,trudge, along. I read Sara Zarr and become inspired.
    thanx…..I will keep trying..


  23. This was such a wonderful post. Thanks so much for your inspiring take on failure. I am in the middle of one of those projects that make you feel like you’ll NEVER accomplish what you want to accomplish. This post will keep me going for a long time!


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