The following post is an excerpt from my new book, Get the Hell Past It: How to Recover from Failure with Grace, Dignity and Possibly Some Cash. If you enjoy this section, I strongly recommend you pick up the book and learn to face your creative failure like a boss!
I’m a real sucker for young adult books, especially fantasy.
One of my absolute favorite tropes is when Young Girl or Boy walks into Destroyed Village Where Parents and All Other Loved Ones Have Been Soullessly Murdered by Bad Guys and meanders slowly through the ashes, only to eventually stumble upon his/her own former home.
There, Young Girl or Boy or Intergendered Hero invariably finds a half-melted Token of the Past, like Grandpa’s gold watch now ruined beyond repair or the last oxen harness buckle Older Brother will ever make. She or he picks this up, strings it on a leather thong and transforms it into the memento that fuels their furious efforts to master swordcraft/spellwork/political acumen so that, one day far in the future, their people may be avenged.
Sure, this is probably a little extreme for your situation. I fervently hope no one has burned down your village lately. If they have, my sincerest prayers go out to you. If they haven’t, I guess we just found something to put on our gratitude list for today.
At risk of sounding a little overdramatic, failure can often feel like someone has just torched everything you hold dear.
After all, it hurts badly when a career skids or a marriage ends or a child turns to drugs. Those are very, very personal failures and they can take a strong toll.
Creative failure, however, is especially pernicious. It’s sneaky and mean and leaves you feeling all alone.
Now, I’m not saying it’s worse than problems with your job, S.O. or children. It isn’t. But when you suffer a setback in these areas of your life, your loved ones tend to cluster around and offer support. You have one large obstacle to overcome, toward which to rally your resources. Does that make it easy? No, of course not. Sometimes it’s brutally hard.
But creative failure brings an extra-fun ingredient to the mix, which is the fact that no one steps up. Or at least, far fewer people.
To be fair, a failed business launch has nothing on a death in the family, so you can’t really expect the same kinds of supportive outflow from others. That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with the recent setback, especially since creative flops can feel much more isolating than the general hard knocks of life. I want to stress that they can, because I am not saying anyone’s personal hell, recent or distantly past, wasn’t terrible/isolating/etc. But again, your community tends to rally around in times of crisis.
The trouble is, creative failure is typically only perceived as a crisis in your own soul. Maybe, if you’re lucky, a boyfriend or girlfriend really cares too. Probably one or both of your parents, if you’re super-duper lucky. But the world in general?
This, though, is one of the gems amidst the ashes. This is A Token That Shall Fuel Your Future Efforts to Take Over the World (Or at Least Open a Redbubble Shop and Fit Into That Dress You’ve Been Staring at for Six Months). Here’s the gem:
The fact that almost no one cares shows you who does care.
People who shrug or pat your shoulder mindlessly or don’t ask at all can still provide great friendship and support in other areas, but they’re not your creative community. This is when you ask: Who did care?
You need to spend a lot more time with those people, my friend.
Personally, three of my favorite creative friends come from my failed design business. Did the design thing suck? Yep. Am I sorry? No. If you were paying attention, you know that three of my favorite creative friends come from my failed design business, and I certainly wouldn’t trade them for one less bittersweet experience in my life.
So even if you got support from only one person, but that person was really there for you, that’s amazing news! Now it’s time to ask that person, “Hey, do you want to be writing buddies/film critics/running pals/whatever together?”
That thought might scare you, but don’t let it. This is elementary stuff. Like, literally. Back in elementary school, we used to say things like, “Do you want to be my friend?” I say we can still say those things, so don’t shy away. The worst thing you’ll get is a no, and honestly, that’s not so bad.
Another hidden gem: Failure is an excellent road test for what works and what doesn’t. This is obvious, of course, but many creatives make the mistake of tossing out the baby with the bathwater.
They assume that because this one manuscript didn’t work, they shouldn’t write. Or because this one gig fell through, playing professionally is a stupid idea. Maybe it is, but this one instance is not proof of that. Instead, grab hold of this gem and ask questions such as:
What worked well about this venture and needs to stay? What needs to go? Who can you ask to help you sort it all out?
Sometimes, failing at something shows you how much you love the thing you already do. I have more proof of this in my life than I care to admit. I have started and quit and half-finished so many projects, it’s hard to keep track. I’ve full-finished more than a few of them … to crickets, whereupon I promptly gave up. I’ve prepped and planned and launched and leveraged and marketed and mortgaged my sanity on something, then still sent it blowing away like a tumbleweed into the dusty American West.
Poetic, I know.
The only thing all these half-finished and half-forgotten projects have in common – aside from the fact that they’re products of the creative demon inside me – is that after they depart, I always turn back to writing.
Year after year after year, I try something and fail at something and realize that writing is still my jam.
After all this time?
(Yes, that was a Severus Snape reference. Yes, we should all love him forever because he is good and wonderful and complicated and pure in just the right way. Yes, I am an avowed nerd.)
On that note, let’s wrap up. The book contains exercises at the end of every chapter, so I thought it might prove helpful to reproduce them here. It’s all about finding your gems, my friend, so have at it.
… You’ll thank me later. And when you do, I am sure I’ll be delighted to hear your kind words. Still, you should know that I’m not opposed to a Starbucks card. Just saying.
Ready to really face creative failure like a boss? Go check out my book, Get the Hell Past It: How to Recover from Failure with Grace, Dignity and Possibly Some Cash. You won’t regret it.
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