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On failure

In this Free Thinking Festival lecture, Frank Cotrell Boyce talks about the importance of failure in culture and particularly for writers  (   We as respondents to writers see students everyday who are paralyzed by a fear of failure.  I rather like how Boyce in the lecture digs into the notion that fearing failure keeps a writer (or any one for that matter) from taking chances or from fully exploring the possibilities.

Sure no one likes to fail, but part of the problem is that we've made failure tantamount to the need to be expelled from a community.  If we are to succeed as writers or, I think Boyce would argue, we need to allow for and expect failures and allow ourselves to learn lessons rather than just fearing failure and casting out those who fail among us.

Cheering on failure, of course, is easier said than done, but I think if we focus on the positive and figure out what our failures have taught us then we are in better shape than in some static paralysis of fearing failure.

The whole thing reminds me of Anne Lamott's essay from Bird by Bird on the need to write "Shitty First Drafts:"
For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
 The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be some thing great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you're supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go--but there was no way to get to this without first getting through  the first five and a half pages.
There is something essential to growing as a writer about allowing ourselves the freedom to make "childish" mistakes and to allow for such "childishness" in others.  If you think about it, writing is a lot like playing.  We play as children to, among other things, gain important life skills.  If we think of writing only as a serious activity where we are not allowed to take chances with ideas or methods of expression, then I think we've shut down the creative side of ourselves that let's writing be fun and engaging, but at the same time innovative.


  1. That was a wonderful talk - thank you for posting! It left me wondering about the (inter)relationships between success, failure, and the role of meritocracy and achievement in the classroom. The speaker mentioned rewarding determination and hard work, which I agree with - but then, how does one grade those elements without grades becoming completely non-standard and individualized? (Maybe grades should be individualized?) How does one compare a student who writes a strong paper easily to a student who works quite hard for a weaker one?


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