This past week, I set myself two writing goals to accomplish every day. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I achieved my goals with no problem. But Thursday was a different story. I finished my morning writing, but when it was time to work on my afternoon project, I found myself staring down the dark tunnel of failure. There were multiple reasons for this: work had been taxing that week; I was extra-tired; my brain felt fogged; it hadn’t stopped raining; I was in the middle of a great book I preferred to read rather than write.
The Inner Critic
My inner critic didn’t take kindly to these excuses. She told me that I’d ruined the good work I’d done earlier in the week by not continuing the streak through to the weekend. She reminded me that no excuse was good enough to not write, if my primary objective in life was to Be A Writer. If I wasn’t serious about meeting my daily goals, she scolded, how could I expect to meet my weekly, monthly, and five-year-plan goals? “You failed,” my inner critic said. “You failed, and you should feel bad about it.”
And I did feel bad about it. I stewed about it during my drive home, wishing I’d just pushed through and done the writing anyway, even though my brain didn’t feel ready and my creativity well was dry. The inner critic’s words repeated in my head: “You failed. You failed. You failed.”
The Voice of Reason
But as I drove and stewed, my voice of reason came finally through. “So you failed,” she shrugged. “Everyone fails. Some people even ‘plan to fail’ and ‘embrace failure.’ Sure, you’ve never been one of those people. But you can at least learn something from the experience, right?”
The light dawned at the end of that dark tunnel. The voice of reason was right: I couldn’t do anything about having failed. But I could figure out a lesson to be learned from it. Wasn’t that exactly what I would have told one of my music students if they hadn’t practiced that week? Figure out a better system for next week, and try again. It wasn’t what happened today that mattered; it was how to improve on the potential for tomorrow.
The Lessons Learned
It only took me a few minutes to come up with several lessons I could learn from my failure. First, I knew I was going through my busiest time of year at work, and I was doing it with a physical handicap (I’m currently four months pregnant, and it hasn’t been one of those easy, symptom-free pregnancies). I needed to allow for days like this, when I just didn’t have the physical or mental energy to push through. I decided to build in a “catch up day” once a week just in case I needed it.
Second, I thought about the project I was trying to work on during that failed writing time. I hadn’t been enjoying it recently. It was difficult to eke out my word quota every day, even though I loved the subject and felt determined to finish. I realized that I missed the closeness I felt to the characters in my previous novel and wished for the same feeling as I wrote the first draft of this new WiP. I needed to take a closer look at these new characters, to connect further to them so I could understand where they wanted to go within the story. And I needed to do some more research on the setting and time period, another thing that always helps when I feel a little stuck.
And lastly, I thought about the lesson I’d just learned about allowing failure to bear fruit. I could write about that, I realized. I could share my epiphany in an essay or a blog post. Hey, I have a DIY MFA article due soon! I could write about learning lessons after failure! By the time I got home that afternoon, I felt a lot better about having failed and I had a plan in place to make things better in the future. Even better, I knew the next time I failed at something, I would remember this lesson and figure out how to turn a negative into a positive.
Failure is Hard, but Learning Is Easy.
Whenever you find something blocking your path, whether you call it failure or uncertainty or writer’s block, remember what your strengths are and try to find an avenue between the failure and your strengths. With that attitude, you can turn any failure into a valuable tool for future success.
Leanne Sowul writes the column “Be Well, Write Well” for DIY MFA. Her historical novel, Waist: A Tale of the Triangle Fire, is currently out on submission via her agent Suzie Townsend. In the meantime, she is working on her next historical novel and a nonfiction project about everyday creativity. Leanne also blogs about writing, reading, work/life balance and self-improvement strategies at Words From The Sowul. Contact her at leannesowul(at)gmail(dot)com, or on Twitter @sowulwords.