The Joys of Failure

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”-Robert Browning

Writers are constantly failing. By this I don’t mean that writers must face rejection on a regular basis, although we do. I don’t mean that it is hard to get published and hard to sell your books when you do, although this is true. What I mean is that writers never quite manage to create the work they believe themselves capable of creating. The story is never as fully or beautifully formed as it is in some deep part of the imagination.

You reach for the perfect synthesis of language and idea, the ideal way to invoke a story with these symbols on paper or screens. Sometimes you get tantalizngly close. You write something and the process is complete flow, you lose yourself. When you go back to edit and revise, you’re surprised to find that it speaks to you almost as much as it did as you were getting the words down. You know that you have given all you can give and written the best that you were capable of at that time. Yet there is always a nagging sense that it could have been better, that your best was not what you wanted it to be. A famous writer once said that novels are never finished, they are simply abandoned. You could keep revising forever. At some point you have to make the choice that it is done even though you know that there is more in you if you can only find it, if you can capture that flash of inspiration and have the skills to do it justice.

We writers don’t compare ourselves to average people. We compare ourselves to the people we read– to Shakespeare or Oscar Wilde or Dostoyevsky. When you make comparisons like that you’re bound to feel like a failure. That’s not a bad thing. It is the sense of failure more than anything else that spurs the artist on. If you’re completely satisfied with what you’ve already done there is no reason to push for more.

This is a short film featuring the ballet dancer David Hallberg.

Although he does not use the word “failure” Hallberg describes what I am talking about: the inspiration that comes from not achieving the ideal.

“…That’s what keeps me motivated as a dancer,” he says. “It attracts me to this art form. There is this level that you will never attain but you so desperately reach for. No other art form does that in the way ballet does.”

(That sentence sounds much more poetic, I now realize, when it is combined with the visual of his movement.)

Ballet has its own way of reaching for perfection and falling short, but every artist, within the bounds of his own form, aspires to attain a level that is always just beyond his grasp– the impossible dream, the unreachable star. When the muse whispers in your ear, she says, “Good try, but you failed. You can do better.”

When you experience that flash of lightning and you write something that you know has stretched your ability as a writer, when readers respond to it, it makes the years of work, the rejection and everything else that comes with this career worth it. That feeling lasts only for a moment because right away you begin to wonder, “Was that a fluke? Can I do that again? Can I do better? Is there more in me? How do I get back to that place, that moment, when it all flowed and my training kicked in and the book seemed to write itself?”

“It haunts me,” Hallberg says of such moments. It is haunting indeed.

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