Being willing to fail

“If you want to get good at something you have to be willing to fail a lot.”

That was some advice that I overheard recently and it has stuck with me, particularly the “a lot” part. As we all know, writing is one of the very least rewarding endeavors that a human being can engage in. You will spend hundreds of thousands of hours alone, ruin your eyesight, forgo much enjoyment that could have been had, and frustrate yourself in endless cycles of obsession with the process and dissatisfaction with the results. Then your friends and family will not even consider what you’ve slaved over to be worth reading – they know you and know that you could not possibly produce anything worthwhile. And so you turn to strangers in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will love and cherish your work, perhaps thinking, consciously or unconsciously, that such a result will instill some value into all of that time and effort that you invested so heavily. But alas, no one is buying.

There are very good reasons that established publishing houses are taking on less new talent and often balk at trying something experimental. Those reasons can be boiled down to two words, one of which starts with an “e” and the other a “p”. Late capitalism is a harsh mistress and were Lou Reed to get started now no one would be printing copies of “Venus in Furs” let alone churning out a run of, dare I say it, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, yet both have enriched my life immensely. To be an artist in these waxing years of the twenty-first century is in large part to be a fool, and all the signs point to ever dwindling returns.

That is, of course, if you count returns in terms of dollars and cents. Many self-pubbers today unfortunately rush to publish their latest Great [insert nationality here] Novel without even properly going through the (admittedly grueling) process of editing and rewriting. I wonder just what it is that they’re after and can only conclude that it must be money and possibly fame. Yet if they are thinking that they can become like one of those people you read about in the circulars Kindle Direct Publishing sends out who have sold one million copies of their how-to on cleaning up pet waste and recently quit their day job to focus on writing then I’d say the odds are against them. Very enormously against them. To self-pub, or even trad-pub, these days is almost to ensure failure – there is simply too much being produced and too few readers to be had, particularly when you throw free web content into the mix. The love of reading and of books is so twentieth century they tell me…and every century prior to that for a good three to four millennia, I reply. Well, no one thinks in those terms anymore.

You won’t succeed if financial concerns are what drive you no matter what happens, certainly not comparatively. You can, however, increase your chances of something positive happening the more you try, a lesson of simple probability (some of the rules of which are described in a very approachable manner in this book, by the way). All of that trying though indicates something else: quite a lot of failing. “You have to be willing to fail a lot.” Are we? And if so how do we handle that? Expectations are inextricably tied in with motivations, and as a look at past posts shows introspection on why we even bother is a question that haunts. If you are an artist then you pursue your art, be it in the penning of songs about sadomasochism, novels about an oddly high freezing temperature for water, oil paintings about farmers committing suicide, or what have you. If you are not an artist but merely seek riches through art then a few choice words might be applicable which we do not need to go into here. We try and we fail and we try again and we fail again, such seems to be our lot. Such might be the human lot. But we never stop trying. Whether that is foolhardy or laudable I leave it to the pundits to decide; me, I’m going to keep failing.

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