Make Friends with Failure

Two faces of Buddha.

As I start this post, I’m about ten minutes away from 2am. I tried to sleep. I really did. I can’t do it, somehow. For reasons I can’t really explain, I’m utter shit at sleeping lately. I’ll have a few successive nights of four hours or so, maybe less, then I’ll collapse from exhaustion and sleep for ten or more hours. One might say, oh, for purposes of this post for instance, that I’m currently a failure at sleeping.

So let’s talk about failure for a bit.

I hear you ask, “Why not talk about success? Isn’t that much nicer?”

At least I think I near you asking that. It could be the sleep deprivation.

Sure. Success is nice. And really, they’re two sides of the same coin. So tell you what–I’ll throw you a goddamned bone for comparative purposes if nothing else.

This past weekend was the Locus Awards, so that puts the whole success/failure dichotomy into some practical focus. There was a wonderful reading by Connie Willis and James Patrick Kelly on Friday night, who then appeared on one of two informative panels Saturday–these also featured Kij Johnson, Gary K. Wolfe, Greg Bear, and Jay Lake. There was so much talent on those panels (and attending the whole weekend), that it was only natural that industry success was one of the discussion topics.

I suspect that’s natural when award season comes around. Taking home a statue or plaque engraved with your name is a concrete benchmark of success. But it isn’t the only measure of success, because everything is a matter of perspective. Many amazingly talented people have never won an award. And there are more than a few famous names who died considering themselves failures because they never found their audience (For example, Emily Dickinson’s first book of poetry was published in 1890–four years after her death).

Success is not some singular yet abstract goal line.

Instead, it is countless goal lines, spread all over the place. Cracking that market you really want to be published in is one. That elusive (heck, ANY elusive award) is another. It could be that first pro sale. Meeting that tough deadline. Securing an agent. That first book deal. A monetary value. That difficult story you really wanted to finish. A book blurb from one of your writing heroes. If something good happens (particularly if it’s for the first time), that’s success of a kind. But those lines are arbitrary and each has only as much weight as you want to invest in it.

Because like any goal line, any milestone, success is only an indicator of where you’ve been, not of where (or how far) you’re going.

A success in and of itself does not guarantee you further successes. You’re never finished. You still have to push on. Forever. Until you’re dead.

And if you’ve spent your life chasing goal lines it’s possible to have achieved amazing successes  in your life and see nothing but ones you haven’t crossed when you make that final curtain call.

(As an aside, it’s now 2:30, so I apologize if I sound bleak and misanthropic.)

As strange as it may sound, I find failure more powerful than success.

Maybe its because failure can be a great motivator.

I’ve had several occasions over the past few days to contemplate things that I wanted but couldn’t quite make happen. Some were personal matters of time management and organization. A few were social while some were professional. Some stung more than others. None were pleasant.

And I’m truly thankful for that.

Failure should not be pleasant. It should not be easy to swallow. It needs to hurt, otherwise we accept it and not strive to do better. Failure feeds the fire in the belly, makes us hungry for success, and gives us a greater appreciation when we reach it.

We are not failures because we fail. We become failures when we fail to try.

A little over ten years ago, I gave up writing. I had been writing screenplays with a writing partner out in Cleveland for a few years. We got a few pitches in, but an actual option, an actual sale…that remained elusive. I gave up and I considered myself a failure.

…for about two years.

I  failed as a writer simply by failing to BE a writer.

When I started writing again, it was my original love–short stories. My first novel followed shortly thereafter. I had tried submitting short stories to various markets before, but never with any success. But I got serious about the writing, and eventually I was submitting stories to various markets as of seven years ago. Any publication at that point was its own success. And for every success, at least three more failures. In fact, it took a year and a half of failure before I got my first publication, “Kid Gloves” for which I received a t-shirt.

But I kept at it. I’m not, as my friend and fellow author Jeremy Zimmerman likes to put it, “kind of a big deal.” I still have a long way to go. But the me from seven years ago would be thrilled to see how far I’d come.

I’m not afraid of failure. Not anymore. I’ve learned to make friends with it, use it to keep me hungry. And baby, I’m starving because I still fail all the time. I’ve had 19 story submissions so far this year. Almost half of them have been rejections (and there are still several I’m waiting to hear from). For the most part, those rejected stories got dusted off and sent back out. There are milestones in my sights. And I’m going to keep marching until I get there.

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