Permission to Fail, Permission to Succeed

As authors, we’re supposed to give ourselves permission to fail, accept our crappy first drafts (and occasionally second through thirty-third drafts), get the words wrong, and allow ourselves to make mistakes without feeling like it’s the end of the world. Too often though, we forget to give ourselves permission to succeed as well.

What do I mean? Well, a couple of things. I’ve seen and participated in variations of this conversation in person and online on several occasions recently, and what it comes down to is this:

  • We’re uncomfortable talking about ourselves and what we’ve accomplished
  • We look around at what others are doing and feel we haven’t actually accomplished anything in comparison
  • We make excuses to and for ourselves to not take our work seriously and prioritize other activities above it

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m guilty of all these offenses. Given past behavior, it’s not likely to change overnight, so consider this a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of post.

Talking about myself and my work makes me profoundly uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable to the point that the majority of my co-workers, people I’ve seen and talked to every day for years, probably have no idea I’m a published author (unless they happen to follow me on twitter). On a practical level, I know reluctance to talk about my work is silly at best, and at worst, detrimental. There’s a big difference between being obnoxious and simply sharing of information.

How, as authors, do we combat the urge to downplay our work completely in order to make sure we don’t come off as bragging or turn into the conversational equivalent of spambots? In theory, it’s simple. When appropriate opportunities arise, DO feel free to talk about your work as though its worth discussing. This includes, but is not limited to:

    • Keeping an up-t0-date author bio and bibliography listing publications/awards and award nominations/other relevant accolades
    • Being prepared to talk about your work when someone expresses an interest
    • Making readers aware of your work come award nomination season

This doesn’t mean begging for votes or  constantly shoving your work in people’s faces, but DO get over the idea that even mentioning you’ve written something makes you a terrible person. As someone who regularly participates in the award-nomination process, it’s helpful to know what authors have published during the year, and even more helpful to know what categories said work is eligible in, since word-counts are rarely listed in publications. (Bonus tip: it’s also helpful to let people know when you’re eligible for awards with narrower specifications, e.g. open only to Canadians, Australians, flightless birds, etc.)

Think of it this way – if you go in for a job interview, when the interviewer asks about your experience, do you immediately lower your head and mumble that you don’t really know anything worth mentioning? No. Writing is your profession/professional aspiration; treat it as such.

As to the second point, it’s incredibly easy to see what others authors are doing – their publishing credits, their award nominations, their reviews – and feel like you’re not doing enough. I do it all the time. Shit, so and so just sold a story and I haven’t sold anything in the last five minutes. I’m a failure. I haven’t been nominated for five Snooglefloggen Awards, what’s wrong with me? I suck. I’m doing everything wrong. There are times when it’s almost impossible to look at what you *have* done objectively. Wanna know a dirty secret?  We all feel that way sometimes. The grass is always more accomplished on the other side of the fence. Look at an author whose work you admire, thinking if only you could do what they’ve done you’d never feel insecure again, and I’ll bet you they’re looking at someone else in exactly the same way and feeling exactly the same thing.

You’re not alone; we all have self doubts. Rejection never stops hurting, but the high of success fades more quickly every time. It’s also easy, at least in my case, to downplay your achievements once they are achieved. The editor must have made a mistake. The award can’t really mean that much if they gave it to me. It’s the nature of the beast. So what do we do?

  • Remember how you felt before you ever made your first sale/finished your first story, thinking if I could just do that, I’d never be insecure again. Look at where you are now. You’re on the other side of the fence, being envied.
  • Celebrate your victories, even if you only do it privately – dance around your room like an idiot, buy a new book, eat a piece of chocolate – do something special to mark the occasion in order to remind yourself it is indeed worth celebrating.

The last point on the problem list is particularly tricky. Obviously life gets in the way of writing sometimes and it can’t be avoided. The maxim that you have to write every day if you want to be a real writer is bullshit. Everyone has their own pace and method of working. At the same time, it’s easy to make excuses for not writing. The curtains probably do need dusting. Have I vacuumed the dog lately? I really should write Aunt Tilda another thank you letter for the birthday card she sent me give years ago. Fear of failure is a big part of procrastination. If you don’t try, you can’t fail, and no one likes failure, so it’s an easy choice, right?

Guilt is another big part of it, at least for me. I’m not changing the world with my writing. I’m not making a living off my writing. No one is counting on me writing this thing, so what right to I have to prioritize it over other stuff that need doing?

This post by Gene Luen Yang on, Is Art Selfish, helped me crystallize some of my thoughts on the matter. Yes, art can be selfish, but here’s the catch – if you aren’t selfish about your art occasionally, it will never have the opportunity to be anything but selfish.

If you never treat your writing as anything but a hobby, only squeezing it in when there’s absolutely nothing else to do, your writing will suffer. Like all art, it requires dedication, practice, and constant work in order to grow. It’s sort of a chicken and egg scenario. Maybe you don’t make your living by writing now, and maybe no one is counting on you finishing that novel, but you have to treat it like it matters in order for it to matter. If you don’t take your work seriously, no one else will either – no one else will even have to chance to do so. If the work doesn’t exist, how will anyone pay you a living wage for it, or eagerly anticipate the next thing you write?

My personal experience is with writing, but all of this can be applied to any pursuit from yodeling to skydiving to llama taming. If you’re passionate about something, you want to succeed at it and have other people recognize your contributions and get excited about what you do as well. But it’s hard to be the first one to stand up and applaud, especially if the person you’re applauding for is you. It feels icky and weird. I know. I really do.

How about this? Doing as I do, not as I say, I will celebrate you. Whenever you think you haven’t done enough, whenever you get the urge to downplay your accomplishments, or put your work aside because it doesn’t matter, know that I’m looking at something you’ve done in jealousy and wishing I could do the same. Then take that moment and celebrate the fact you’ve done something awesome. Hopefully it will be easier knowing you’re not alone in your applause.


Filed under Advice, Writing

2 Responses to Permission to Fail, Permission to Succeed

  1. So true. Thanks for writing this <3