Ever tried. Ever Failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. – Samuel Beckett
The instructor of the first writing workshop I ever attended shared this quote with us all on the first night of class and it has stuck with me over the years. We live in a success focused world. Yet, seldom does success occur in the absence of failure. Listen to any person you consider to be successful speak about how they arrived at the place they are today and I’m certain they will mention something that went wrong. You have to listen closely though, because they will likely give this a prettier name than failure – it will be a challenge or setback or stumbling block.
This instinct to dress up failure stems from the need to make certain that it wasn’t all dust and ashes and scraps; make it clear that there was a lesson. “I faced a challenge that made me stronger.” “It was a setback, but now I’m back on track.” “I stumbled just a bit, but I’m standing upright again now.” I am a fan of the positivity of these statements, yet find myself drawn to the bluntness in Beckett’s words. To me, there is freedom in simple and dressed down statement – I failed. The permission to close the door and move on.
I wrote a second novel. I wrote it to fill a formula that I created from editors’ rejections of Neverending Beginnings: a big premise, strong secondary characters, and a separate story line for those characters. I sent it out to a few agents and received standard rejections (note: this is not the part about failure, this is normal). I sat the novel aside for just a few weeks while I waited to attend a workshop on query letters to polish mine a bit. After this event I sat down to re-write a super-shiny new query letter and decided it would be helpful to skim through my work again for inspiration. With that foolproof formula I had created no longer so front and center in my head, I realized something that I had missed until that moment – my story had no soul.
There was a big premise, and strong secondary characters moving through a lovely little vignette but there was no spark. When I was writing Neverending Beginnings I would lose myself in Kate and Ben and Amy and Jack for hours. Sometimes I would forget they weren’t actually people I knew. With Novel Two this never happened. I never connected. I failed to let the story lead me and instead tried to cram it into a very specific, incorrectly sized box. I tried to treat this experience as a little hiccup (a stumbling block, if you will). I tried to make edits to revive it, but it was really still a crumpled mess. Labeling it a unrevivable failure is what finally allowed me to move on.
And yes, of course I learned something from this; there are huge lessons in the mess. But I am happy to say I failed.