A “Strange Balance” for Writers

“With writing, I think you need to find some strange balance between confidence and humility. You need to start from a place of confidence, from the belief that you have a story worth telling and know how to tell it—you have to set out from this place with gusto. Then immediately open yourself to humility and the certainty of some kind of failure.” Will McGrath


The reason for trash cans

“A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason.” Margaret Atwood

Don’t fail this way

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you do anything at all in this life, you are eventually going to experience failure. It is impossible to be successful 100% of the time. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be good for us to be successful all the time, because failure can be an important learning experience.

If this is true, then why are we so afraid of failing? To be more specific, why am I so afraid of failing? There are times when I let my fear of failing prevent me from even starting. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to find a job out of college, so I’m afraid to even apply for one. I’m afraid I won’t be able to write the story that I envision in my head, so I never start it. This list could go on and on.I realize that my failure to try is in itself a kind of failure, and it’s the wrong kind.

Here’s another example of the wrong way to fail:

When Irish author Flann O’Brien submitted the manuscript for his second book, The Third Policeman, to a London publisher in 1940 it was rejected.

But rather than admit this lack of success to his friends, he pretended the manuscript had accidentally blown out of the boot of his car on a trip to Donegal and had been lost forever.

“This was a ruinous thing to say because he couldn’t then turn around and say, ‘Oh I’ve found it again,’ so the manuscript sat very openly on his sideboard until his death,” says Booker Prize-winning author Anne Enright. She has selected O’Brien’s story to appear in an exhibition entitled Fail Better at the Science Gallery at Trinity College, Dublin.

“The year after [O’Brien’s] death, his wife got it published to a keen reception.”

If O’Brien had been more open about his failure to get the book printed, he might have seen his work published within his lifetime


This story appears in a BBC news article about failure. As someone who fears having my writing rejected, this story really struck home for me. What opportunities am I missing because I allow my fear of looking like a failure turn me into someone who only tries once, or who never tries at all? If you respond to failure correctly, you become a more resilient person, but if you don’t, it’s like you’ve failed twice: once in the actual failure and again in not learning from it.

Thinking more about failure doesn’t make it any less frightening for me, but I am trying to change my attitude towards it. First of all, I don’t want to let my fear of potential failure to cause me to actually fail by never trying. Second, if I don’t succeed, I want this failure to spur me on, not stop me in my tracks. I want to start looking at my mistakes as learning experiences rather than as crippling, permanent errors that will be branded on my forehead forever.

I want to be a successful failure.