Fail Better

What does success look like? (Hint: Sometimes it looks like failure.)

fail better

I recently asked a group of students to reread the drafts of memoirs they had been composing for the creative writing class I teach at Hunter College in New York City. And then I asked them to write a brief summary of what they thought was working and what they believed needed reworking.

“This work is a failure,” one student responded as he threw down his pencil.

How often in our writing lives have we uttered these words? And how often have we let them stop us dead in our tracks?

Through the years that I’ve been writing, I’ve learned a lot about how well-known writers deal with failure. And their insights into this stage of the process – for it is a stage – have helped me get through those moments when I think my work is worthless. They’ve also helped me teach students strategies for getting to the other side of that treacherous abyss into which any writer can fall ‒ the belief that a work is a failure stops the writer from writing.

It helps me to know that as distinguished a writer as Tobias Wolff, author of This Boy’s Life, has said that at one time or another, he has considered abandoning everything he has ever written. But he has learned to push beyond that point and figure out what he needs to do to finish because he believes that unraveling thorny problems will teach him something he needs to know about his craft.

Judging our works-in-progress as failures rather than using judgment neutral language – What’s working? What’s not working, and what can I do about it? – can set up impassable roadblocks in our writing life. But if instead we view our writing as a series of creative problems we must solve, we’ll be more likely to continue.

In the midst of writing Subtle Bodies, Norman Rush told his wife Elsa he couldn’t finish the novel. She asked him why it wasn’t working. As he answered, she took notes, and they determined that each problem was a challenge he could solve one at a time. Rush used her notes to revise, and he finished the novel.

If we cultivate a mindset of willingly accepting so-called failure, of viewing those thorny moments as an opportunity for growth in learning our craft, we’ll be more likely to continue and complete our works. What looks like failure is often just a necessary way station on the road to success.

For five years and 1,500 pages, Michael Chabon struggled to discover what his novel Fountain City was about. He finally admitted he couldn’t finish it. After he abandoned it, he began writing Wonder Boys, a novel about a failed writer struggling mightily to emerge from an artistic impasse much like the one he had experienced. Chabon didn’t let the failure of Fountain City stop him: He used all the frustration and despair he had experienced to create Wonder Boys.

A creative life can’t possibly entail one success after another. Impediments in writing inevitably arise. But it’s what we do after that counts. And a setback often forces us into a paradigm shift about the nature of our work that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

When Virginia Woolf was writing The Pargiters, she deemed the work a failure. Her draft alternated prose chapters about women’s issues in Victorian and Edwardian England with fictional chapters. But she realized the ambitious design wasn’t working.

She became despondent, yes, but kept working nonetheless and devised an ingenious solution. Woolf extracted the fictional chapters, and turned them into her novel The Years. And she used her polemical essays to write Three Guineas, her analysis of the causes of women’s mistreatment. Woolf emerged from that failure with two books, an important accomplishment considering her initial assessment of The Pargiters.

In working with writers, I’ve learned that it’s not talent that gets the work done. It’s understanding that if we stick with the process through uncertainty, anxiety and so-called failure, we’ll develop the tenacity to endure and improve our craft. And like Wolff, Rush, Chabon and Woolf, we will learn to solve our creative problems, just as that student of mine ultimately did.

—Louise DeSalvo teaches writing at Hunter College in New York City and is the author of  The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity.