On Writing: What You Do After You Fail

November is National Novel Writing Month. For thirty days beginning or experienced authors try to start and finish a novel of 50,000 words or more. A lot of them are successful. A lot of them aren’t. It’s a tough but incredibly rewarding challenge that can teach you a lot about writing and yourself as a writer. I’ve tried NaNoWriMo a few times. One year I had a lot of success with it and wrote a draft of something that was really good. Other years I flamed out before the second week. This year I didn’t participate because I had other creative goals and projects I wanted to complete in November. All of those goals and projects I set out to achieve in November failed for various reasons. So, here I am December 1st in the hangover of a failed month just like a lot of novel writers that couldn’t summit those 50,000 words. There’s a lot to think about and write about why failure happens but that’s not what I’m concerned with here. What I’m writing about now is what you do afterwards, the day after you don’t hit your deadline or get the job or fulfill a promise you made to yourself. What happens next?In most movies, when characters fail it’s just a second act cliffhanger before the good guys rally and win the day in the finale. In real life you don’t just get a montage or pithy advice from a strange wise man or pop song soundtrack to get you prepped for the end. There is no end. You just have to muddle through. These are the things I do, or try to do, the day after.

Have a Drink

When our friends or family encounter failure we express sympathy and try to cheer them up. I try to do the same thing for myself. I pour myself a drink. It might be whiskey, it might be a beer or coffee or tea but I fix myself something that I like and I drink it. It’s not empty calories or alcohol or anything in the drink that’s important. It’s the time I take to drink it and the thought behind it. There’s time to hash and rehash why things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to but that can wait for my drink. My drink is there to say it sucks that this happened and the time I take to drink it is there to stop any other words from drowning that out.

Get Upset

There’s no need to pretend that it doesn’t hurt when you find yourself sucker punched or that you’re not disappointed, sad or even angry in circumstances, in others or yourself when something you really worked on comes crashing down. There’s certainly healthier and more productive ways to feel those things but denying them entirely isn’t helping anyone. It’s just lying and most of the time that lie sits in your gut and comes back on you. That lie can even lead to the failure down the road. It’s important to gnash and spit and box with your emotions. If you’re a writer, well, that’s just creative jet fuel that can blast you forward if you learn how to burn it right.

Find a Win In the Loss

There’s something good even if you have to invent it. After you fail there’s a part that work, there’s a lesson you learned or there’s a joke you can make after it hurts a little bit less. I’ve found that the embarrassing stories from my youth just get funnier the older I get. The times I was dumbest, the times I had poor twenty-something judgment and acted like a complete fool, are fodder for my funniest bits now. Even if the failure was an unmitigated disaster and the wreckage left behind it just ugly and tragic, a writer can take that and put it into a story or a character.

Keep it in Context

What do you call it when you hit a bulls eye on the very first try? Beginner’s luck. That’s not success. Any writer that’s ever written the first draft of a novel and found that first draft immediately published and famous is lucky, probably very talented but, and I don’t write this to throw shade on anyone accomplishments, that’s not real success. Real success is at the end of a road that includes failure. Mr. or Mrs. First Time Super Awesome Novelist might knock it out of the park on the first try but what happens on the second shot or the third? Eventually, you fail. You always fail. Every successful writer or scientist or Olympic pole vaulter has a long history of almost theres, not quites and flat out failures before, after and around every success. Experience and skill can mitigate failure but they can’t abolish it. Failure is a natural by product of risk, innovation is a critical component of true success and risk is necessary for innovation. Besides that, the satisfaction and glory of success is sweeter in contrast to the messy, embarrassment of failure.

Play Again

If you didn’t hit your 50k, try it again. If you don’t find a publisher for your book, keep trying. If you keep hitting your head on the ceiling on the way to the stars, do it again. That old Thomas Edison chestnut about genius being on percent perspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration has persisted because there is truth in it but, in its brevity, it misses a pretty important component: perseverance. Could be that Edison thought that was already in the “perspiration” category along with “sandbag Nikola Tesla” or he just left it out to keep his rhyme scheme but perseverance can’t be underestimated as part of the formula for genius or success. The kind of creator you are isn’t defined by the creations that go perfectly but by the creations that don’t. How you rescue a broken story or when you cut lose and let it go, it says more about you as a writer than the finished product.

Congratulations to all of the NaNoWriMo winners and losers this year. November is going to come again. Keep writing.

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