Lately I’ve been thinking – and posting – a lot about forgiving mistakes, recognizing when I don’t know how to do things, and accepting my imperfections. All of these are important and challenging things for me to contend with, because of that “need to be perfect” and “need to know” I’ve written about before. This week, though, I find myself thinking more about a different kind of challenge: recognizing what I can do.
It’s a funny contradiction. On the one hand, I feel like I have to do everything right. On the other, I’m used to thinking of myself as the kind of person who fails a lot. Perfectionists are probably often like this: getting things “right” matters so much that we focus on every mistake and don’t see the things that do go well. It used to be that whenever I was learning how to do something, I had to feel like I knew exactly how to do it, right out of the gate.
Writing has given me many tough lessons about failure. When I first started writing seriously, I had the same contradiction always running in my head. My gut felt like my work was crap, but at the same time, I couldn’t stand to get helpful feedback. My work had to be perfect, even though I had no idea what I was doing. It took one particular workshop, with two brilliant and mercilessly thorough teachers, to get through my not-listening barrier. They showed me all the things I had stubbornly refused to see about my own work, and showed me what I would have to be able to do if I wanted to be a decent writer. They took apart my then-novel-in-progress, five hundred pages of crap at the time, and showed me how to rebuild it from the ground up. Somewhere in the course of that four-day session, I realized I could either hang onto my pride and my five hundred pages, or I could let them go, have a good cry, and start learning how to write. After the workshop, I went home and started my novel over again. It eventually became To Love A Stranger.
Looking back, I think I can say that in spite of all my stubborn wiring, I did learn how to fail. It was a crucial lesson. Interestingly, now I can see how far the pendulum has swung back the other way, and how in any given situation, I usually expect myself to screw up one way or another.
We all know how much failure can hurt. The funny thing is, it can also feel safe. If you know – or at least think – you’re going to screw up, maybe you don’t expect much from yourself. Maybe it doesn’t hurt quite as much if you fall down. Maybe you don’t ask yourself to reach for things that feel too big, or too daring, because why should you? You probably can’t have them anyway. And above everything else, maybe it feels safer not to think that other people believe in or count on you. If you can succeed, you can also disappoint.
The more we care about something, the scarier it might be to succeed at it. If we love something but we’re not good at it, it stays small and private. If it turns out we are good at it, if maybe we have something to share that other people would like to have, and if those people start counting on us for that thing, then we had better stay good at it or else.
I’m starting to feel that success-fear in my writing life. My second novel has gotten some terrific feedback that makes me proud to share it, but also more than a little scared. When I was writing it, I felt like after all these years of trying, maybe I’d finally learned how to tell a good story. But I’m used to thinking my work is fair-to-middling. What if I thought I actually could tell a good story? Higher stakes. Farther to fall if I find myself struggling.
And as a writing teacher, I’m starting to hear that I do have gifts that help other people. A couple of weeks ago, I was a presenter at a writers’ conference: a big new scary challenge I’d never faced before. I went into it frankly expecting to stumble through the hour-long presentation somehow, and then maybe go crawl into a hole. Instead, I found the audience listening eagerly, asking questions, telling me afterward how much they’d appreciated the session…and I realized, maybe more clearly than I ever have before, that I can do this. I can teach this craft I love so much, and I can make a difference for people who want to learn.
These are tough truths for me to absorb. They mean so much that my reflex is to push them aside. Dangerous. Scary. My head tells me to keep myself small. Keep expecting myself to screw up, because who knows what big awful explosion could happen if I started actually trusting what I can do?
I’m still trying to organize all these things in my head, but maybe, when we share our gifts – even if we don’t always do it as well as we’d like – we can do some good. Maybe we make a difference, and it matters.
I always want to remember how to fail well. Maybe, though, I can also learn how to succeed.
Photos by Paul Faatz