Embracing Failure

by Dori Ostermiller

A student who recently submitted her essay for publication and was bombarded with rejection letters emailed me the other day: “Does it ever get any easier?” she asked. “Please, tell me it does.”

I wanted to reassure her.  I wanted to say that yes, it will for sure get easier.  I wanted to promise that with each progressive attempt, she is more likely to succeed; and in fact there is some truth in that.  Take the story of one of my writing students, Megan Tady, who started working on her new book Super Bloom in 2014, and slogged through a decade of revisions and rejections and re-edits and more rejections before she landed a book deal with Zibby Books.  Or take my own story: I wrote and rewrote Outside the Ordinary World over the course of almost two decades, received about 30 agent rejections and multiple editor ‘passes’ before the book finally found a home.  History is full of these stories of writers who triumph after years of slogging; we know by now that only dogged perseverance gets you there. 

But for most of us writers, failure is also just built into the process. It’s built into our daily lives, I mean.  As a writer, I fail all the time, every day.  Even beyond the regular humiliations of rejection letters or mediocre book sales, I fail my work. I fail my writing. I fail my characters. I fail the words.

My writing is a constant meditation in confronting failure and becoming okay with it, even embracing it.

Ann Enright said it best when she said, “Failure is easy. I do it every day. I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people…This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do.”

Let me be clear: just because I fail every day, it does not mean it gets easier. It still hurts. It still makes me question my ability and doubt whatever project I am working on. But—on my best days—when the sting wears off, I am able to see failure as something other than humiliation. There’s a real benefit to failure. Because when we make failure our friend, it teaches us something deep and fundamental.

Embracing failure in our writing allows us to embrace uncertainty and imperfection in our lives. None of what we hope for is ever going to look just as we envision it: not our words or our sentences, not our stories or our books, not our marriages or our mothering…

When we realize that this work—this work of writing, this work of living—is not about perfection, or even about ‘success,’ but instead about engagement, about practice, about showing up for our books, our kids, our partners: it’s about living our lives and writing the words and trying our damnedest to stay open to joy and reverence–then we’re given a gift: the gift of clarity. The gift of being present. The gift of being grateful for this work that we do.  

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