My husband has a saying he likes to repeat to me, “You must fail to succeed.” He said he learned this from going to the gym. The only way he can improve his strength is by choosing a weight so heavy he is only able to do four to six reps instead of the normal eight to twelve. In failing to lift the weight the full amount he succeeds in building his muscles. Eventually the weight he could only lift six times is lifted twelve and more weight is added. The process begins again.
This saying of his has been on my mind lately. Is it true? Is it in failing that I succeed?
Two years ago I met the most amazing group of women. Seven of us traveled to Honesdale Pennsylvania to attend a two-part writing workshop called, “The Heart of the Novel.” Our teacher was the well known editor Patti Gauch. She was the reason we were all there. On our first visit we listened carefully to Patti’s every word, ate incredible food and then retreated to our individual cabins to write. Our goal was to have a completed novel in six months and send it to Patti to edit before our next gathering.
When we all returned to Honesdale it was like a family reunion. We had kept in touch through email discussing what we had learned and supported one another in our writing. We were all anxious to see Patti’s notes on our novels.
This was my first children’s novel and at the time I was still figuring out the differences between an editor and an agent responsibilities. I had two drafts written of MYSTIC and in my mind, I was done. It was ready.
I’ll never forget the rainy afternoon that I received my notes from Patti. I sat on the bed listening to the ping of rain on the tin roof of the cabin reading through her pages and feeling as though I was the worst writer in the world. I wondered why I even tried in the first place. I felt foolish and embarrassed.
I got out my cell phone and climbed to the top of a hill, umbrella in hand, trying to get more than one bar on my cell in order to call my husband. He would comfort my failure and probably even lie to me and tell me I was a great writer. Because that’s what husband’s do.
When it was time for my meeting with Patti, I asked her if she thought I should take a creative writing class. Here I was at a writing workshop with women who had already been published. Women who had graduated from prestigious colleges and I was just a teacher who liked to write. I was feeling very sorry for myself. Patti said no to the writing class and then said something I’ll never forget. “You’re closer than you think.”
Saying those words to me made me see her notes in a different light. I realized that everything she was telling me about my story was necessary in order to make the story better. My expectations of what I wanted to read in her notes were unrealistic. An editor is a teacher and a guide. A talented soul who helps writers hone their craft.
We focused on the first chapter. She showed me my mistakes and challenged me to try again. Still feeling vulnerable I went back to my cabin and forced myself to sit down with my laptop. I rewrote the first chapter. The next morning the sun shone bright. The dark clouds had disappeared taking with them much of my insecurity. I was not going to give up. Patti read my chapter and smiled. I learned and improved. The process of storytelling was finally sinking in.
If Patti had told me that my story was brilliant, which is what I wanted to hear, I never would have grown as a writer or as a person. I had to fail in order to gain the strength to persevere.
Isn’t that what life is all about? Perseverance – through the perceived good and perceived bad. If I don’t falter in following my path, I know all my failures are just stepping stones to success.
This morning I typed J into Google. I wanted to research the teachings of J. Krishnamurti. But when I typed J – pictures of J. K. Rowling appeared. I had to look because last night I watched the Lifetime movie of her life. And a few days ago I wrote about Daniel Radcliffe. That’s when I found the following in Wikipedia.
Seven years after graduating from university, Rowling saw herself as “the biggest failure I knew.” Her marriage had failed, she was jobless with a dependent child, but she described her failure as liberating:
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter, and a big idea.
And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. – J.
K. Rowling, Harvard commencement address, 2008.
Bonus, it tied right in with today’s title.
Thanks for reading and here’s to failure!