Fear of Failure

I used to think this question was motivational and even profound: “What would you do if you could not fail?” Now, I hate it.

The saying taunts me as if to suggest I’ve somehow forgotten my dream. The dream I’ve held onto with a loosening grip since I was old enough to scrawl sentences on wide-lined paper, to be a writer. Oh, ok, I get it. Suddenly remembering what had once seemed my life’s work, I’ll simply run to my computer. This time, however, I’ll magically squelch my crippling fear of my words not being good enough. I’ll have the courage to re-start an essay for the thousandth time. The Critic on my shoulder, who has been shouting in my ear and stomping on my keyboard will retire without resistance. Or, I will just tape up her mouth so she ceases interrupting the flow of my thoughts and sentences. She will no longer scowl, lament, and cajole me to rewrite every phrase and every paragraph and reorder every scene until the original impetus and flow take a great fall and shatter. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again.

As if all along I knew how to shut up The Critic’s shrill voice long enough that I manage not to revise and hack up my work until the writing is, in fact, as clunky and unreadable as The Critic had warned me it would inevitably be. Too bad, she has often said. I thought that idea finally had some potential.

What if I believed I couldn’t fail? In this fantasy I return to my eight-year-old self, fearlessly put fat pencil to paper, and rediscover not only my love of the writing process but also a firm, if unfounded, belief in the brilliance of my words. Unencumbered by self-doubt, my pieces would flow effortlessly and I’d would finish them glowing with self-satisfaction. Publication and recognition would follow, certainly!

But what writer, however successful, believes they couldn’t fail? Writers I admire, whose paths I’ve dreamt of following, include peers who received their MFAs on the same day as I did. I do not see them repeating as an affirmation, “I cannot fail!” Behind their successes, I imagine them resilient in the face of what might be perceived as failure. How many lifeless form letters have they received or times was there no reply at all? They must view rejection as part of the process rather than as failure. How else to carry on? I know they have braved many thank you for your submissions before their pieces found homes in small literary journals or major magazines, before they found major publishers, and before their books hit the New York Times bestseller list or won literary awards.

But before the accolades, before the publications, even before the revisions, and perhaps before the first keystrokes of a first draft, I’m thinking they must somehow quieten their own inner critics.  Because if I know anything about my own path to reclaiming my writing voice, it is this: As long as The Critic is louder than my writing voice, no project will ever feel finished enough to put out into the world.

The Critic might indeed be wise enough to tell me if a draft is polished enough to share. She is well-read and has an ear for what an audience might demand of the writing. She might even be well-meaning as she tries to save me from rejection. Perhaps she is correct in her sighing assessments as I type that this and that word are not quite right, that this turn of phrase bumps, and that the draft lacks flow or surprise or logic.  Maybe she is justified in her assessment that my life experiences and perspective could at least be more uniquely portrayed or received better with a lighter touch and a sense of humor.

I can remember—and still recapture in moments—the sensation of my words, stories, ideas pouring out into the world with a feel of rightness. These are the pieces that have formed on the page into something I want to share with the world. Since I finished my MFA in Creative Nonfiction, I am armed with so much knowledge and a head full of effective writing. Yet the result is I often face The Critic who has become so loud that my words, when they come at all, emerge bullied and beaten by not good enough before they even hobble, dispirited and broken, to my keyboard.

Taking a page from my mindfulness practice, I know I ought talk back to the Critic with kindness as well as resolution. I might say, Thanks for your input and for trying to spare me the rejection before it arrives. However, I’m actually okay with the probability of rejection. What I need in this moment is some quiet and space to write. Please, let the words come unencumbered by judgment, just for now. You can have your say in a later draft. Here, have a cup of this Sleepy Time while I invite some words to dance and play together.

Perhaps I spike The Critic’s tea with something stronger than chamomile so that I might invite enough silence to forge into words what I mean to say before the Critic begins to reawaken. I, on the other hand, am to remain fully awake in these precious moments of flow, allowing the words to come tumbling messily onto the page. I ought to invite only my inner eight-year-old to read the first draft. She will declare it brilliant. She will point to her favorite parts, the darlings that older me may very well end up murdering in revision, though after bedtime for my most childish impulses.

Only then would I nudge the sleeping Critic awake for her first look. Appeased by this invitation, calmed from her nap and sedative, she will not harangue at all, but thoughtfully (if a little groggily) wield her blood red pen to guide rather than annihilate. I will have gained the confidence to know when to thank The Critic for her input and send her off again, porcelain teacup in hand and dreaming of perfection. Meanwhile I am to make final revisions, making only judicious use of The Critic’s suggestions in the stillness. I will instinctively know to stop tinkering before the words cease their improvisational dance, and I am to find peace with an imperfect final-ish draft.

This is what I would do, I think, if the only failure was allowing fear of not good enough win. And as Critic wanders towards her bed, tea sloshing in her dainty cup, she might look over her should to say that this ending still feels incomplete. I would give her a nod, and bravely release the piece into the world, as is.

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