Friday, October 1, 2010

What rejections and a ukulele taught me about failure

I just watched the Oprah interview with J. K. Rowling, and was thoroughly fascinated. She talked a little about the importance of failure, which I thought was interesting since I was JUST mulling over failure myself yesterday. It seems like whenever I mull over something, someone else talks about it. Usually on a blog with 10x more readers than this one. Well, this time it was national TV, so my thoughts keep moving up even when I don't. ;)

I'm gonna talk about it anyway. Sometimes when I'm talking to teens or aspiring writers or whatever, I feel kind of bad, because I want to encourage people who are struggling to achieve their dreams. I ALWAYS wanted to be a writer, always wrote a lot, was always praised for my writing, had a lot of encouragement, etc. It did take me three years to find an agent and I really worked on my craft during that time, but it would be a lie to tell you that I started out completely clueless and awful. I was always good at telling stories. I don't feel it's braggy to say so. I could tell by the way people around me reacted. The same goes for art, although it wasn't my passion so I never honed it as much.

However, because I WAS really talented at certain things from a young age and I knew it, I tended to avoid new things I was NOT good at. Anything athletic, for example. I quickly gave up on learning to ice skate or do any sort of structured dancing, ditto karate, archery, or basically anything sporty, even if it interested me. Music was another one. I tried learning the guitar as a teen and dumped it pretty fast. I sucked at playing guitar. Learning to sew, you can add that to the list too. I deeply resisted learning to cook, too--it was only that my burning desire to eat decent food overwhelmed me.

When Magic Under Glass sold, I asked for a ukulele for Christmas. This time, learning an instrument was a new experience. Ukuleles are pretty easy to play in a basic way, so that's satisfying, but I still have to admit the whole world of playing an instrument is new to me. I don't know how things work or the terms. It's not intuitive to me. Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to do algebra when I look at ukulele lessons. There is nothing remotely special or impressive about anything I have EVER played on that ukulele.

I realized it's one of the first things I've ever done knowing that if I am ever praised or noticed for my ukulele-ing skill, that day is FAR, FAAAAR away. It's not like I write or draw strictly for praise or attention, but if everything you ever do is praised and noticed--at least sometimes--it's kind of hard to do something that you'll probably never be stellar at.

It's kind of liberating in a way I never knew. I can just mess around without any sense of pressure on myself. But I think I was able to do it because I've sold a book, and "proven" myself in my preferred area of expertise. And maybe because I'd learned a lesson by putting my book out there to agents and editors, something I couldn't do for a long while.

I wish I'd been easier on myself before. Why did I need to be good at everything? I didn't realize how much I feared failure, and might have held myself back from learning a lot of new things.

Succeeding in the arts (or probably, anything you're passionate about) is all about embracing rejection and failure, and learning from it, even when you're starting off with some inherent talent. For years I was afraid to query even though I thought I was a good writer. I must have suspected deep-down that I wasn't as great as I thought I was, and I was afraid to come down. There is definitely a deep fear about moving to a new level of achievement or competition, that what cut it before won't cut it there, that there are others much better than you are. The first rejection I ever got from an agent made me cry. The first rejection of a partial made me cry, and a full, and sometimes I'd just be in the midst of the process and random tears would sneak up on me: What if I'm never good enough? I thought I was special and I'm NOT. I am MEDIOCRE and my writing does not make anyone desperate to acquire.

But in other ways, I learned to enjoy even the process of submission and rejection. Every rejection meant I was OUT THERE. I was LEARNING. For years, I was afraid to do it, and now I WAS DOING IT. And man, even if I meant I had to step down from the protected tower, it also meant that I wasn't one of the people who just TALKS.

In hindsight, one of the things I'm most proud of about myself in the last five years is not that I succeeded, but that I learned to fail.


  1. When I was growing up I used to have lots of interests, even things I wasn't good at. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I also learned to play instruments--even if I never intended to do anything with it or even play for an audience--and I gardened (which I was terrible at for a long time), and I knit (I am pretty decent at knitting, but back in the day all I did was knit stupid crap, like a cozy for my stuffed Velociraptor), and basically lots of other things that I never expected to really "succeed" at or have be important. As I got older and more focused on my writing, those other things I used to do went away. I feel like now it's gotten to the point where I'm *too* focused and can't enjoy anything if I think I'll fail at it or not have anything to show for it, which sucks because it's like I've become a beauty pageant mom to myself or something.

    A few weeks ago I acquired a hand-me-down violin. I've always kind of wanted to learn the violin, but it was never one of the instruments I tried. But now I can learn, and oh man, the idea of learning to play an instrument again sounds so refreshing. I wouldn't be learning for anyone but me and I don't even intend for other people to hear me play. And the best part is that when I play, the sounds will fade away and there won't *be* anything to judge later. It's very in the moment and the fact that I don't care if I fail at it is so relieving.

    (And whoa, this ended up being a long comment...)

  2. This is a great post, and a topic I think about a lot. As a writer about to start querying for the first time, I spend as much time thinking about failure as I do success, and very much for the same reasons--when you're a (relatively) gifted kid, you get used to getting everything on the first try. I know myself--I tend to give up when I fail. Now, I also know I will never in a thousand years give up writing, but there's that tiny voice of fear still in there, shouting, "Yes, but what if you really AREN'T special?"

    It's hard to know exactly how I'll react facing rejection. But this post makes me feel better! Thanks. :)

  3. Chelsea: Interesting, you were kind of the opposite, which I guess makes sense because I was bizarrely focused on success as a kid and I think I've relaxed quite a bit... Also, knitting a cozy for your stuffed velociraptor = awesome. =D

    Meagan: It's so true... I guess it's one reason a lot of gifted children end up going nowhere in adulthood. For a time I felt paralyzed by the idea of proving myself in the adult world. But it actually feels really good to get over that, even though rejections do still hurt.

  4. This is lovely! I too watched the JK Rowling interview and I've also been mulling over this whole business of failure. I really liked what she said ... I can't remember the exact quote, but it was something about how if you live your life so carefully that you will NEVER fail, you won't have had a life that was worth living.

    Learning to fail, learning to suck, learning to accept it about yourself so you can get better--that's part of learning to write.

  5. Katherine:

    Yes, she had one quote about how society talks a lot about success and emphasizes it, but not so much about failure, and it's important to talk about too. I never realized how true that is until the last couple of years. Embracing the possibility or even the actual event of failure is what leads to success.

  6. Hmmm... interesting perspective. Yes, you have to give up alot and fail alot to succeed. Not easy.