This post also appeared on KBoards.
In one of my myriad lives I’m a classical singer and voice teacher. That tradition of singing isn’t something someone taps into overnight; you learn by listening to the greats, studying diligently, putting in hours of practice. And by failing. Yep. Over and over again. In a performance art, the only way to perfect performance is by performing, ready or not, and that means you have to work through a lot of imperfect performances to get to where you want to go.
I’ll give you an all-too-personal example. I studied for years as a baritone, but my voice sits right on the baritone-tenor cusp, and there was always a lingering question of ‘should Ben be singing tenor instead?’ Making the decision to train as a tenor in my doctoral studies was no small thing. I’d been a big fish in a small pond for a few years, and I’d invested a lot of time, money, and energy into my baritone technique. My first recital as a ‘tenor’ was an abysmal technical failure. My throat was tight, I was a ball of nerves, and I cracked over and over again, finally giving up and singing my highest notes in falsetto.
Because I had a lot of stage credits and experience as a baritone, I continued to be cast in opera roles at school. But the first few tenor roles were really rough. I was relearning how to sing from square-one, and I was making mistakes left and right. Over time my voice blossomed into a new freedom, but it took a couple of years of putting on my stage make-up and going out in front of a live audience knowing that I was likely, to some degree, to fail. Years of failing in public, keeping my head down, and running at it again, failing again. Over and over, a gradual uphill battle of glorious failure, of working through fear and nerves and a constant sense that I was falling short of my own standards, until one day I sang a recital without things falling apart, and then another I sang a show without feeling like the weakest link, and now, finally, I bill myself as a tenor and people believe me, people enjoy it, people want to hear more.
Back to writing.
About a year ago I thought I could kick-start my writing aspirations by hopping aboard the writing challenge train that was chugging along at full-steam. It was a great train, big and shiny and beautiful. And I don’t regret it for a second. But boy, let me tell you: I failed spectacularly. So spectacularly that I abandoned the project entirely for months, withdrew from the indie author community to lick my wounds, and only recently re-emerged from my mythical cave of rebirth. Spring is in the air, I suppose.
I managed a very high word-count for myself in that project, so from a certain point of view I didn’t fail at all. But the draft I produced was of such astonishingly poor quality as to render me completely disheartened. The thing fell apart like a big over-wet cake collapsing under its own weight. Everything about it was wrong, and I still don’t know if it’s salvageable (hope so though! Someday).
But you know what? Lately I’ve been writing again, and it’s different this time. I can’t really explain how or why. And maybe this draft (military scifi, hello) will fail too, and maybe I’ll once more have to scrap it and start fresh. But I can tell you unequivocally that I am a better writer today because of the challenge I took on a year ago, and I see the evidence of it in my word-counts, my sprint times, and, most importantly to me, the overall quality of my pacing, tone, and story. Yeah, I failed. Publicly. Go have a look at my original post; it’s embarrassing that I just dropped off the face of the earth and never had the heart to wrap up the thread. But without that failure, who’s to say I’d be able to write what I’m writing now?
What did it take for me to start again, post-failure?
I had to forgive myself. I had to give myself permission, retroactively, to fail, and to be ok with that. I had to own–have to own–the realization that failure doesn’t define me; it points me toward success. It hones me, sharpens me, brings knowledge and wisdom along with pain and embarrassment. I had to forgive myself that failure to such an extent that I was willing to try again, in the full knowledge that I may fail again, just as spectacularly.
That’s perseverance in my book. Not to keep writing when everything is going well and the words are flowing and the readers are flocking to your work; who wouldn’t keep writing under those circumstances? But to keep writing when it’s bad. When it’s trash. When it hurts a little, when you’re not sure you can do it. And you know what? You may be right. You may not be able to do it. But you won’t ever really find out if you don’t persevere.
So where am I now? About a third of the way through The Lunar Gambit, a military scifi adventure, with more planned in a series. And four days out from premiering my first podcast, https://thebookspeakspodcast.wordpress.com/ (thread to follow). I can’t promise myself that this draft will be a great draft, or that this podcast will be a breakout platform. But I’ll never know if I don’t try. And with the threat of potential failure always looming, my past failures feel more and more like friends. They encourage me, because I know I can get through it. And they teach me so that I avoid past mistakes.
Your turn. I want to hear about some spectacular failures, in writing or otherwise, and about how it’s propelling you forward instead of paralyzing you. Share the love! Here’s to failing in public.