Failure is not an option

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure recently. I seem to know a few people going through tough and uncertain times on various fronts who consider themselves failures. As I understand it, the only way to fail is to try something that doesn’t work out. If you’re trying new things and taking risks, how can you be a failure? Even if you take a leap and fall flat on your face, you’re further forward than someone that never moved.

US figure skater Adam Rippon has received some vile abuse on twitter for being an openly LGBT athlete at the Winter Olympics. Amongst the many nasty and unwarranted attacks was someone telling him they hoped he would fail. His inspiring response carries out beyond the world of sport.

For writers, a career can be littered with failures. If you’re going to be strict about it, it’s not just the rejections that pile up, smirking at you from your in box; it’s also all the ideas you couldn’t bring to fruition, the poetic form you couldn’t master, the story you never finished. However, if you let go of the idea that these are failures, you can learn a lot from these situations (I refuse to call them mistakes.) Maybe your writing improved, or you learned to manage your ideas better. I’ve written a number of failed villanelles; I’m fascinated by the form and each time I get a little closer to understanding how it moves and breathes. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I enjoy the process of learning and improving all the same. They may not be perfect but so what? If I do ever write in that form successfully, it will only be because I travelled a path paved with my failures, so I must love every step of the way.

A writer’s life includes a lot of rejection and in some ways, it’s hard to take a direct lesson from that. When you pour your heart and soul into the work and get a polite - and only sometimes encouraging - “no thank you” back, it’s hard to learn anything. However, what these rejections can teach you is resilience. If something gets rejected, then take a look at it. If you still believe in the work just the way it is, send it out again. And again. And again. I have an advantage here in that I was born with a stubborn streak a mile wide and I think that’s as valuable to my writing life as my lifetime spent reading. I’ve made a virtue of rejection; it’s the only metric I track within my writing and it’s not to beat myself up, it’s for that moment when the underdog finally triumphs. I recently had a poem accepted for publication that had been rejected nine times. Nine times it took a leap and fell on its face but that tenth time, it took flight. It feels sweeter than those rare times I managed to find the right home for a piece on the first try.

Ultimately, in writing and in life, what matters is not whether you fell down, messed up or got rejected. What matters is what you do next. And sure, it’s frustrating when all you seem to get is knock after knock but as the saying goes, if you’re going through hell – keep going.