Embracing Failure

I was talking with a friend recently about fear.

“What’s your biggest one?” I asked, and he didn’t hesitate.

“Failure.”

Really? I thought. That’s the thing you’re the most afraid of? I didn’t say anything to reveal my dismay, but in my mind all I could think was, “What’s so scary about that? I fail every day.”

It was in this moment, though, that I realized how fortunate I am to fail every day. I will never be the person sitting paralyzed on her couch, afraid to act because I am afraid to fail. Because, as a writer, I fail all the time. Even beyond the regular humiliations of rejection letters or mediocre book sales, I fail my work. I fail my writing. I fail my characters. I fail the words.

My writing is a constant meditation in confronting failure and becoming okay with it.

Ann Enright really said it best when she said, “Failure is easy. I do it every day. I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people…This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do.

Let me be clear: just because I fail every day, it does not mean that it is any easier when I do. It still hurts. It still makes me question my ability as a writer. It still makes me doubt whatever project I am working on. But—on my best days—when the sting of failure wears off, I am able to see failure as something other than humiliation. There’s a real benefit to failure. Because when we make failure our friend, it teaches us something fundamental about ourselves as people and about the nature of our lives.

After all, none of this is permanent. As Enright says, “ in the end, all of us are dead and none of us is Proust.” Embracing failure in our writing allows us to embrace uncertainty and imperfection in our lives. None of what we hope for is ever going to look just as we envision it: not our words or our sentences, not our stories or our work, not our marriages or our mothering…

When we realize that this work—this work of writing, this work of living—is not about perfection, but instead about engagement, about showing up for our books, our kids, our partners, about living our lives and writing the words and trying our damnedest to stay open to joy and reverence, then we’re given a gift. The gift of clarity. The gift of being present. The gift of being grateful for what we have and for this work we do.  

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