Letting Failure Fuel Success

I work in a school.

Unfortunately, failure doesn’t always precede success in school settings. I’ve been one of the culprits at times, not allowing kids to try again, making scores final before they should be.

One of the things that has steadily changed my mind about overall grading practices is drama. As I started teaching drama, it became painfully obvious to me that one of the great benefits and necessities of drama is failure. Everyone fails at drama. Everyone misses a line. Everyone flubs a delivery. Everyone has an off day.

We had one of those today. This morning, my group performed a song from our performance to a group of students at school. It was the same song that they nailed perfectly during the performance the night before. Today, for some reason, everything went wrong. A lyric was missed and it through off everyone. The entire piece crumbled in a frightening and painful way with the entire cast standing awkwardly on stage, not knowing in the slightest how to continue or what to do.

When they eventually left stage, they ran outside and let out a litany of “oh my goodnesses” because they could not believe that they flubbed things so badly.

But I didn’t yell. I didn’t love their performance. There was not much too love, but I was interested in how they would rebound.

It was dramatic. Failure on stage in front of peers is an excellent motivator. They all practiced and went over the mistake. When they performed again later in the day, they nailed it. When they performed this evening, they nailed it.

They learned. They grew. They felt pain, and they felt triumph. That’s real life.

I don’t need to give a long list of famous people who needed to fail in order to succeed. We all know the stories. But do we ever do anything with those stories. Are we allowing our kids to fail? To fall? To embarrass themselves? Are we allowing them to look awkward on-stage and not belittle them or ream them out?

No one is perfect, so why do we expect them to act that way. We need to allow failure to lead to success.

An Episode of (writing) Failure

I like to be honest on this blog. No reason to be otherwise.

I don’t like to be pretentious, though any foray into self-advertising seems to uncomfortably cling to the cliff leading into the valley of pretension.

Here’s the cold hard truth.

But sometimes writers fail to achieve their goals. Sometimes others deem their work as not so good. Sometimes a writer has to take it on the chin and move on.

Well, I just experienced one of those times where my writer’s ego was bruised because something happened that I did not anticipate.

I wrote a script for a local theatre competition and it wasn’t selected to be produced. Honestly, I was stunned. Not because I think I had any right of entry but because I easily got in last year and had a very good run at things. AND, more importantly, I felt like the script I wrote this year was my absolute best one ever. Yet it did not crack the top 20 of the festival. How could this be?

Well, I don’t know the criteria of inclusion and who picks what based on whatever. I have no knowledge of that. All I know is what I wrote in the script.

The script itself is, I believe, a beautiful and poignant piece about the Underground Railroad. That in itself might be the problem. A historical piece, perhaps, could seem dated to some. But I wrote it with such universal themes that it really could be applied in any situation – you think we still live in a world were there is exploitation? Oh yeah.

So here is what I learned through this incident. Nothing as a writer is a given. A writer has control over only one thing – putting the best word combination on a piece of paper. That’s it. After that, it’s in the realm of anything can happen or nothing can happen.

Now, this whole thing is not a complete loss. My musical submission was accepted and I had another script that was accepted in a different competition. So I’m batting 2 out of 3 this year which isn’t bad.

Plus, I will be producing this passed-over script for my show in November, so it will see the light of day. And it will be awesome, I have no doubt about that. It’s a powerful piece!

So in conclusion, I will remind myself to remember the writer’s creed (I just made this up.)

  • A rejection does not mean anything about the quality of your work.
  • A rejection will never stop me from writing.
  • A rejection should always be a check-up call to make sure you did your best as a writer to prepare. If you feel you did, then just chalk it up to the judges’ poor taste. 🙂

Failure is a necessary and important part of writing. And that’s a good thing because all writers will experience their share of it.

A Failed Novel Resurrects Itself

Put this one in the category of never giving up on a project.

About 10-12 years ago I got up the gumption to write a novel – something I had never attempted before. I had a certain premise in mind, 3 generations of Americans who had somehow been affected by Vietnam – one at the tail end of WWII, the other during the Vietnam War, and the third in modern day Vietnam. I even fleshed out the opening scene which would help thrust the story into action, a tragic accident upon which the rest of the story would hinge. It was perfect in my mind, and so I tried.

I wrote the opening few pages of the first chapter. And then I stopped.

I reread it. Left it alone awhile. Reread it again. Left it alone. Again and again until I finally realized that it wasn’t going anywhere, and so I abandoned it.

That was a failure. Or was it?

Fast forward ten years, and after I had written Beauty Rising, I knew I wanted to attempt a second novel before I ever published or did anything with my first. I wanted to prove to myself that it wasn’t a fluke. And so I sat down to try and resurrect that failed novel, but as I began to ponder my options, an image of a man in a red hat captured my mind, which sent me down a very unexpected path leading to my second novel, The Recluse Storyteller – now only a month and a week away from release!

But before I released The Recluse, I wanted to write my third – you know the drill. I wanted to prove that number one and number two weren’t flukes. And suddenly, what do you know? That original novel idea bloomed.

It flowed. My original opening scene was pushed back another 15,000 words to better set the scene. The three generations of Americans just fell into place and within two months the story was finished – my longest novel to date entitled The Reach of the Banyan Tree.

So here are a couple things I learned:

  • Starting a project in which I fail is not a failure.
  • Failed projects just might need more time to prove themselves.
  • Go where the words take you.
  • Be patient.
  • Enjoy.
  • And lastly, I love writing.

Thank you, failed novel. I hope that 2014 will bring you success after twelve years. But I realize now that you are not late at all.