How I learned to stop worrying, and love failure

I was inspired to write this post today because of Shane’s guest blog called Start:

One of the loudest voices in my head, the real dick of all the voices, likes to tell me that what I’m making won’t be perfect. It’s an impossible standard to live up to, perfection, and is therefore an effective weapon against my own creativity. I’m often tempted to give up before I begin. But I’ve tried to stop doing that. After 41 years, I’ve finally begun to realize that you have to start. You have to begin to make something before you can worry about how it’s going to end up. If you don’t start, you have nothing.

I want to be like the people who keep pushing forward, in spite of the critics, self doubt, and uncomfortable odds. They try new things. They take risks. They eat shit sometimes. They get back up and try other new things. Their successes are widely embraced. Their misfires are lonely. Most of all, their art is inspiring.

If I’ve learned anything in my shaky life as an artist, it’s that you must stop talking and spinning and whining and start making your thing today. Pick up a camera. Pick up an easel. Open your laptop and turn off your Internet connection while you write. Find a starting point. Ignore the voices. Ignore the critics. Reward yourself for having ideas by valuing them enough to believe in them.

Failure does not exist.

A little over a year ago, I experienced a creative explosion, and wrote more short fiction in the span of a few months than ever before or since. It was a whole lot of fun, and some of the stories that I pulled out of my brain, like Hunter and The Monster In My Closet, totally did not suck.

Since then, I’ve struggled to find the time/inspiration/courage/focus/whatever to cultivate a story idea beyond just being an idea. I was about to say that I wasn’t sure why, but I know why: I was afraid of failure. I’d written a couple of short things that didn’t suck, and was paralyzed by the prospect of writing and publishing anything that could or would or did suck. Besides, it is so much easier to derp around on Reddit all day than it is to get out of the Internet and focus on telling a story, right? There’s nothing quite as safe — and ultimately boring — than not taking a risk, creative or otherwise.

While I was on the JoCo cruise, I sat down with my friend John Scalzi and talked about writing for almost two hours. I miss making things up and making them live, and I desperately want to learn how to break out of the short form narrative non-fiction storytelling that’s been most of my writing for the last decade. I wanted to know how to take an idea that I’d turn into 2000 or so words, and instead work it into something that lasts for 10000 or 30000 or even 50000 words. You know, like a novel. For kids.

We talked a lot about the practicalities of writing, like having a schedule, meeting a word count or maximum time every day (like 3000 words or 2 hours, whatever comes first). We talked about breaking up a long piece of storytelling into several short stories, and then writing the connective tissue to put them together into something longer. We talked about the business of publishing, and for whom self-publishing makes sense, and why.

But the thing that got me out of my creative doldrums was John’s advice about failure. It isn’t for me to share with you what John believes were his failures as a writer (if we’re all lucky, he’ll write about it at Whatever), but I’ll share with you what I took away from it.

Sometimes we set out to do something, like write a novel, and we fail at writing that particular novel. But in the process of failing at that novel, we can actually succeed at writing another. For example, years ago I had this idea to write a book called Do You Want Kids With That? about being a stepfather. I would take some stories about my life with Ryan and Nolan, and wrap them in practical advice for stepparents based on my experiences.

I started working on it, and quickly realized that I was experienced as a stepparent, but profoundly unqualified to talk about it to other stepparents. I concluded that it would be irresponsible to write that book without a psychologist co-author, so I abandoned it. But! I had all these great stories about things I’d done with my kids, about how we’d grown together as a family, and I needed to do something with them, so I ended up building The Happiest Days Of Our Lives around them.

So even though I failed to write a book about being a stepparent, I succeeded in writing an entirely different book, about what it means to be a Gen X geek. I’m really proud of that book; so proud, in fact, that I didn’t even think about the failure that helped birth it until I talked with John on the boat.

There are lots of other examples in my recent history: the first cut of the first episode of Tabletop wasn’t good at all, but we scraped away the failed parts and ended up with one hell of a successful show about the joy of gaming. Almost 10 years ago, my attempt to collect everything from my blog at the time and turn it into a book was a failure that produced Just A Geek and Dancing Barefoot.

I could go on, but I think you get the point: failing at one thing does not mean you fail at all things and that’s the end of it. Failing at something can often be the beginning of succeeding at another thing.

Since I had this long talk with John on the boat, I realized that I have all the tools I need to write stories of any length, even if the longer stories are outside of my comfort zone (and there’s a whole other post coming about how scary and rewarding it was to get way out of my comfort zone — ultimately expanding it quite a bit — when I performed on the cruise). I know how to write a novella or even a novel, but I’ve been afraid to try it and fail. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying that, at any moment, Carrie’s mom will spring out of the closet, covered in knives and shriek at me, “THEY’RE ALL GOING TO LAUGH AT YOU!!”

But yesterday, I sat down and I plotted out a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long, long time. I sat down, thought about my big idea, and then had an incredibly fun time drilling down into that big idea to find the narrative story and character arcs that exist inside it. And the thing about doing that? It was fun. I wrote out a few mile markers to generally move the story forward, so I know what I’m driving toward, and when I got to the end, I discovered something incredibly awesome that I hadn’t even considered in the months I’ve had this idea bouncing around inside my brain. I typed it into my text document, gasped in delight, and clapped my hands like an excited child … which I guess, in that moment, I was.

Today, I start writing that story, unburdened by the fear of failure because I know that, even if I fail in some way, I’ll succeed at taking the risk, and learn something that’ll be helpful and useful for the next thing, or maybe the thing after that.

I owe John a debt of gratitude, because he helped me get most (maybe even all) of my existential dread and angst under control, so I could stop worrying and learn to love failure.

It feels good to be a capital-W Writer again. I’ve been a tourist for far too long.

86 thoughts on “How I learned to stop worrying, and love failure”

  1. Two things that started jumping into my for attention:
    1) I actively dislike and avoid perfection. Perfection is evil and ugly, and should be defeated.
    2) Don’t put too much into the “Yay, I turned off the internet” dogma. I know, I know, it is very cool and socially correct to say it and it has somewhat taken the place of “I don’t watch TV” hipster badge of honour. It is not the internet. It is one personal tendency to do something we let ourselves get glued too. As a kid we had 2 TV channels. The only had TV from about 5PM until midnight, tops. Saturday and Wednesday afternoon had some kids’ TV and early evenings had some. So I didn’t waste any time, right? I was always playing outisde, right? I was wasting my time reading books. I just couldn’t put a book down and gt stuff done. I still read. Lots. But now it is the highbrow thing to do because I can say I read instead of internetting.

    I could also write a book. “Circumstancially enforced remote parenting – How to be the third person in your own kids’ life by decisions that weren’t your own”. It would have chapters like “Not being the one who helps his kids with their homework and still smile” or “Finding creative ways to be important to them while having a fulltime job on the side by working that much harder on it”.

  2. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be a writer–or even try to be one. I loved writing stories in my English classes as an elementary student. I loved writing in journals, and even wrote my own “fan-fic” as a middle-schooler before there was anything in the world called the Internet. But, never, did I ever think I’d write. I thought I’d teach.

    And, then, I failed at teaching.

    I took a long break, working in offices as my husband studied medicine. Then, we started having kids, and I became a stay-at-home-mom. I started writing little things, like a blog on how to be a wife of a medical resident, and later, being married to a doctor. But, still, I never thought I could be a writer.

    About four years ago, on October 31st, I decided to sign up for “National Novel Writing Month”. I’d heard about it the year before from a friend, and thought, “What do I got to lose?”. November 1st came, and I started writing. And, won with a little over 50,000 words by the end of November. It was hard. There were times during that month that I wanted to stop. My story was convoluted and weird and by the end of it, pretty much crap. Still, there were nuggets of gold in there.

    The next year, I decided to do NaNoWriMo again, but with some of my mom friends writing along with me. We had a great time, and I ended up winning again with over 50,000 words, and a story that I kind of liked. My friends and I formed a writing group, and I started revising my novel and sharing it with them, only to give up halfway, because the story was depressing–and I think I was still dealing with some post-partum depression myself after the birth of my second son.

    Two Novembers ago, I tried NaNo again, but I decided to switch from Sci-fi (what I’d written before) to Fantasy–the thing I’d always enjoyed reading. I went in with no idea what I was going to write. My husband gave me a setting idea, and I rolled with it. And, won again with probably close to 60,000 words. I loved my story, although I knew it wasn’t perfect. I started revising it and rewriting parts, and sharing it with my writing group. They seemed to like it, too.

    Here I am, way over a year after that NaNo, working on my third novel and almost done finishing a third draft of it. I’m going to hire an editor and a cover artist, and by the end of the year, my goal is to have it self-published. I’m not looking for any kind of success or anything. I’m just blown away by the idea that I wrote something, and that, by the end of the year, it might be sitting in my hands in book form.

    Failure comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. What we do with that failure (or the surprises we find when we stop worrying about it) are what really matter. Thanks for the inspiration, Wil.

  3. I have followed you casually for a few years now, on webpages, twitter, and youtube, since you were doing a tech product review video podcast with I think Revision 3.

    I was hoping it would be super easy to now purchase some of your works, but I was met with dead end after dead end.

    For example I clicked the link right in this blog for The Happiest Days of Our Lives and ended up at http://wilwheatonbooks.com/category/the-happiest-days-of-our-lives/. Clicking the link “buy the audio version …. right here” ended up at LuLu marketplace with the message “Oops! You’ve arrived here before our system could shelve this product.”. No Luck

    I tried back in the first link again and selected the link in the next paragraph for Just a Geek. I arrived at “http://wilwheaton.typepad.com/wwdnbackup/2005/12/just_a_geek_teh.html” where there was another link for the audio version of Just a Geek which took me to “http://10quicksteps.com/index.html#justageek” where there was ANOTHER LINK (are you sensing that I am getting a bit linked out playing whack-a-mole ?) The page tells me once I have “paid @ Paypal I would automatically return here to download ” = but I don’t see any pay pal link. There IS a LULU.com link for this book as well, which I clicked, but you can probaby already guess which OOPS message I get when I go there.

    Surely a one-stop place where all your hard copy and audio copy items can be purchased is do-able. You even have the wilwheatonbooks.com URL to house it. I spent a frustrated half an hour trying to buy Wil stuff and it’s just too difficult. I recognize that some of the links I ended up at probably date back to 2007, but surely downloading books or audios should always be available, never out of stock.

    I will continue to follow you on twitter, and on the web and on youtube. If I see any mention of an attempt to clean up your “store” it may tempt me to come back and try another attempt at purchasing something.

    1. Thank you for reminding me that I have a ton of work to do on that whole “make it easy to buy my work” thing! I got so busy acting that I sort of let that whole publishing thing slip.

      It won’t happen right away, but in the near future I should be able to pull a lot of that stuff together.

      Thanks for reading and for your feedback!

  4. When I first started to get back into writing, I immediately started writing a novel. After getting about forty-thousand words into it, my enthusiasm started to falter. I heard that little demon nagging in my head – “You’re not good enough. No one will want to read this. You should just give up.”
    I know that voice. I hate that voice. Fuck that voice.
    This time, however, I choose not to give up, but instead I took a step back and began to write short stories. I started to enjoy writing again, and after a while I decided to post the stories on a blog. Now, a few months later, I’ve written enough for an entire book with plans to fill two more. And there are people out there (albeit still only a few) who not only read my work, but are actually excited about it and look forward to my posts.
    I’ve come to realize that the people we idolize and call heroes are not only remarkable for great things they’ve achieved, but also for the obstacles they’ve overcome. Not because failure wasn’t in their vocabulary, but because they did not surrender to it.

  5. Last weekend, I started packing up a significant amount of my book collection to sell. Yes, I know that’s blasphemy in many ways but the majority of the books I am selling are “academic” books from my graduate work that, frankly, have little relevance to the path I’ve chosen for myself. (Non-academic publishing in the form of a podcast.)

    I thought to myself as I packed up some of those books, “Wow. I really am a bad academic.” Then I laughed at myself. It’s a really easy thing to measure yourself by someone else’s standards of achievement or success, it’s much more difficult to have you own standards and stick to them. I have found more pleasure in this pursuit than I ever found writing in a traditionally academic format. Another podcaster said my show was the NPR of game podcasts and that felt better than anything.

    So I shook off that thought of being a failure of an academic (hell, I do have a Ph.D. after all – I didn’t really fail) and reminded myself how happy I am that I made the decision that brought me here. (And to presenting at PAX East next month because seriously how cool is that?!)

    Thanks for sharing your story and helping me frame mine. :)

  6. I’m not a writer but I do enjoy reading, though I’m no literary scholar or snob. Also, I’m not a usual commenter or Tweeter or poster but I truly enjoyed this article/essay and wanted to express such. It was well written, in my opinion, and the content was meaningful and touching. Thank you.

  7. Thanks for talking about this, Wil.

    I’ve had the very beginning of a story idea in my head for a while now. I’ve never been a writer, never wanted to write or do much of anything that’s particularly creative. But this story idea has been bugging me for a while now.

    Several of the people I follow on Twitter are scientists, mostly in astronomy and other space-related fields. Lately I’ve seen some of them discussing “imposter syndrome,” where one feels like an imposter even if one is as smart, as educated, and/or as successful as other people in one’s field. I’m familiar with that feeling in my own job as an engineer at a major consulting company; even though I’ve done well in my career, I have the feeling every day that sometime soon, I’m going to be “found out”.

    And I think this may be where my story idea comes from. It’s basically “How did I get here?” Or maybe “What am I doing here?” Or even “What the hell is going on here?”

    Could be that I need (more) therapy in addition to the antidepressants, but I think I may actually try to write something and see where it goes, even if it ends up being (just?) the beginning of a journal.

    1. I’m working on it. I’m also working on doing all of my works in audio, including the chapbooks, Dancing Barefoot, and some unpublished stuff.

      1. That would be totally rad. I primarily “read” via audiobook due to the amount of time I spend in a car for work. Please tell me you would be the reader too, because your reading of Ready Player One, is probably the main reason why I have become such a huge fan of your work this past year. I thought you did a fantastic job and are one of my all-time favorite readers. I just wish there were more!

        Also I wish you great luck with your new project!!

  8. You can do it!!

    I’ve been meaning for quite some time to write a post of my own about failure. Beautiful, glorious, fabulous failure!! Failure is proof that you are trying. That you are participating in life, not just watching from the sidelines. I guarantee you, every single great successful person you’ve ever heard of could regale you with their tales of failure for hours! Failure is proof that you are on your way to your goals.

    Regarding “3000 words or 2 hours” – don’t be shocked (or disappointed in yourself) if you don’t reach that 3000 words a day for a long time. When I was writing my first novel, my daily word count was so much smaller than it is now. Some days I’d think “Wooo!! 300 words! Yay me!” And yes, yay me! 300 words is 300 more than 0! You’ll build up the writing muscle, like any other, and eventually get to a point where 1000 words is pretty easy. I’ve just finished my third novel and I’d say 2000 is sort of my standard baseline effort. I know I can do 2000 words in a day pretty easily if I’m putting in the proper effort, so I aim to do at least that much. But I built to that. It didn’t happen the first day.

    I’m excited for you to be taking on your dream! Go, Wil, go! I’m sure you have plenty other writers to give you advice and encouragement, but if you need another person to encourage (or to “re-courage,” as I think of it, to give courage again when you get discouraged), let me know!

  9. Sorry this is off-topic but I just had to comment about Winter Storm Q. It brings up so many memories of John deLancie’s character Q on ST:TNG. My favorite was Tapestry from 1993. One quote by Q: “Welcome to the afterlife, Jean-Luc. You’re dead and I’m God.”

  10. Looking for another quotation, I came across this, thought of you: “Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.” – Charles F. Kettering

  11. Oh, and here’s another! This is one of my most popular pins on Pinterest, so it must be true!

    “Just because you are struggling does NOT mean you are failing. Every great success requires some kind of struggle to get there. Good things don’t come to those who wait. Good things come to those who work hard and struggle to pursue the goals and dreams they believe in.”

    http://pinterest.com/pin/157837161912527562/

    :)

  12. a good lesson! i need to remember it. the last time i had fun writing was when i tried to do nanowrimo. i didn’t complete the novel, or the month, but i did more writing than i thought i would, and again, it was actually fun(!) because of the whole theory of not judging yourself and just writing. whattt? menostopjudge. anyway, i ended up spilling water on my laptop and lost everything on it i hadn’t backed up, but i still remember the fun. good luck with the new piece! :)

  13. I logged in to ask if you got to catch a Zoe Keating performance on the cruise (because I just pieced together that it was the same cruise she was tweeting about) and then I noticed your “jam” was Tetrishead… So I am hoping that you *did* see her and perhaps meet her and become best friends and stuff. I love when people I’m a fan of become linked somehow. Squee!

  14. Brilliant post. I felt similar when I read Shane’s guest blog – inspired to start! You took it a step further with learning to love failure. Thank you :)

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