“You fail only if you stop writing.” —Ray Bradbury
In 1983, Margaret Atwood rented a fisherman’s cottage in the English seacoast village of Blakeney, Norfolk. She planned to spend the next six months writing her most ambitious novel yet — a complex and richly detailed dystopian tale.
Atwood soon realized she was unable to write. The sheer scope of her novel intimidated her. She spent her days bird-watching and her nights reading bad historical novels and nursing chilblains caused by the cold damp weather. She later referred to that time as “six months of futile striving.”
What was wrong? Why didn’t she write? Answer: She was blocked by fear of failure. Her vision of the novel loomed so large in her mind that she felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. She didn’t know where to begin.
Frustrated with herself for wasting months of valuable writing time, Atwood finally did what every successful writer must do in order to overcome the fear of failure: She wrote. She began producing bits and pieces of the story. She sketched in characters and wrote patches of dialogue. It didn’t all hang together at first, but that didn’t matter. After six months, she was finally writing again.
“I grasped the nettle I had been avoiding,” she later said, “and began to write The Handmaid’s Tale.” That novel later became her most successful and acclaimed work. Her advice to anyone who is paralyzed by the fear of failure: “Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.”1
This was hardly Margaret Atwood’s first novel. She had already enjoyed a fifteen-year, five-novel career when she found herself blocked during The Handmaid’s Tale. So the fear of failure is not restricted to beginning and aspiring writers. Successful novelists often experience this fear as well. Like Margaret Atwood, you can conquer your fear of failure and go on to achieve your greatest work.
Embrace the Sense of Failure
The conquest of this fear begins with acceptance of the inevitability of failure. To write is to know failure. Most writers experience more failure than success, and we all strive to achieve a level of perfection that is probably unattainable.
Irish novelist Anne Enright describes a frustration most writers have felt — that of always aspiring to an artistic goal that is just beyond our reach: “I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough, you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, and refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.”2
And English novelist Will Self said, “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail. The disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. . . . I prize this sense of failure — embrace it even. . . . To continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience.”3 As writers, we accept the inevitability of commercial failure, artistic failure, and even failed relationships.
One True Sentence
The fear of failure afflicts many writers soon after the publication of their first book. The writer thinks, “I fooled ’em once, but can I fool ’em again? What if I only have one book in me? What if I have no encore?”
Suspense writer James L. Rubart, author of Rooms and Book of Days, recalls that after his first book was well-received by critics and readers, he worried that it was a fluke — and that his second novel might not measure up. “The response to Rooms was so strong that I was definitely nervous when Book of Days came out. That whole ‘I only have one book in me’ thing. But a lot of people liked Book of Days better.”
In fact, Rubart says, his mastery of the writing craft increased in demonstrable ways with each new novel. “It took me six years to write Rooms,” he recalls, “two years to write Book of Days, five months to write The Chair, ten weeks to write Soul’s Gate . . . and I’m on pace to finish the novel I’m working on right now in six weeks.”4
Wendell Berry is a farmer, antiwar activist, novelist, and poet. He remembers the sense of unease he felt after his first book was published. He has learned to embrace that uneasy feeling and to anticipate the unknown adventures ahead. “I am discomforted,” he says, “by the knowledge that I don’t know how to write the books that I have not yet written. But that discomfort has an excitement about it, and it is the necessary antecedent of one of the best kinds of happiness.”5
In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway recalled the twinge of self-doubt he felt as he contemplated a new story:
I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say.6
Don’t fear that you have no more stories or books in you. You have barely scratched the surface of all the stories your soul contains. Over time, you have learned and grown as a writer. Relax in the confidence and mastery you have gained from that achievement — and prepare to conquer even greater challenges in the future. Trust your unconscious mind, your talent, your training, and your experience. Then sit down in front of your screen or your blank page and write the truest sentence you know.
Fail Early, Fail Often
Web writer Diogenes Brito says that he wrestles with a number of fears every time he sets out to write — fear of the blank page, fear of the unknown, fear of being judged, and fear of losing control. But one fear that no longer troubles him is the fear of failure. Brito says he overcame that fear thanks to one of his university professors:
When I was in Stanford’s design program, a professor named Dave Beach had everyone raise jazz hands to the sky. He then instructed us to jump and cheer, “I failed!” I have never forgotten that moment. “Fail early, fail often” was the mantra. The goal was to build up an immunity to failure, so that fear of it would never hold you back. Like [computer scientist] Dick Karpinski says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly — at first.” I remember that, and it keeps me from freezing up. The enemy of creativity is fear, so I keep going, no matter what.7
If you live by the maxim, “Fail early, fail often,” you can write without fear of failure. Train yourself to view failure not as an objective reality but as a false label people impose on a learning experience. Instead of telling yourself, “How horrible — I’ve failed,” simply shrug and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Lesson learned. What should I try next?” Make up your mind to learn from your failures and you’ll stop being afraid.
- Margaret Atwood, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
- Anne Enright, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
- Will Self, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
- James Rubert, “Focus On Freedom: Q&A with Author James Rubert,” SimplyFaithful.com, July 30, 2012, http://simplyfaithful.com/2012/07/30/focus-on-freedom-qa-with-author-james-rubart/.
- Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1985), 3.
- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (New York: Scribner, 2009), 22.
- Diogenes Brito, “Fear of the Blank Page,” Uxdiogenes.com, March 10, 2013, http://uxdiogenes.com/blog/fear-of-the-blank-page.
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