Embrace Your Failures: They’re Gateways to Success as a Writer

For several years that I have taught creative writing courses, lessons or short talks to children, young adults, parents and aspiring naive writers, the importance of experiencing failure on the first drafts and learning from them to improve your skills are among my favorite topics. With these topics, I found out that sharing lots of stories can greatly help your audiences to truly understand the value of embracing their failures.

I have shared stories of one of my past students who have progressively developed the hate for learning just because she was too afraid of failing. There were also stories about young children who were so traumatized by their parents’ reaction to their failing grades or low essay scores to the point that they don’t want to try any longer and often accepted themselves automatically as a failure.

Yes, parents can play a major role on how children destroy or improve themselves based on how their first or first few failures were dealt with. If you’re a parent, remember that your children’s shortcomings especially in school can become unexpected gifts when you help them cope with the experience.

The hardest part when I’m sharing stories to make my point is when I’m sharing my own experience. It would be easy to tell other people’s experience but if sharing my own failure to my audience, it’s a petrifying process despite having gone through it for countless of times in the past. Sometimes I share my own stories but won’t explicitly reveal that I was talking of myself. But there will always be times when I really have to share my personal stories especially when the people I’m talking to seem to be unconvinced on the value of failure or when they’re really someone who I felt I can trust.

It’s a scary process, really. While telling my story, I keep worrying at the back of my head what if the audience will feel that I betrayed them. They’re here to be inspired with their career or something, and here I am telling my personal stories of failure. If it was a paid conference, they would probably stand up and angrily ask for refund. What if they’ll be mad and walk away even before I can tell them the point of the story? But despite every session ending positively all the time, I still feel nervous and unsure each time I do it.

Then there’s this one personal story that I always hide from anyone — not even my close friends. It is so horrible for me that I would only want to share them to a stranger in a bar in a city I haven’t visited before because I am sure that either I won’t be seeing that person in the future or he wouldn’t recognize me when we meet again.

I always hide that part of my own story despite my willingness to share my learning from failures — well, until some weeks ago when I was invited as a resource speaker to a small group of young students who aspire to be writers enrolled in an elective Literary class. I’ve seen their first drafts submitted to me before the session was held, and I could say it wasn’t really the best — some glaring errors abound. But their zest to learn and the passion as I saw it in their eyes are so intense that I want to give them the best advice for their future by talking about the benefits of failure — even if it means revealing my vulnerabilities to these passionate people.

We discussed about experiencing failures, the struggle to find time, calling on your creative muse, and among others. But things started to get intense for me when I was asked…

“How many drafts did you before your book was published?”

I was about to answer my usual question of “a lot” or “a year’s worth” and other related phrases, but I noticed that the students who have previously been mostly looking down on their desks to write notes have raised their heads and looked up at me to await my answer. Based on the write-ups they previously submitted to me, I could say they’re really struggling with the craft. But the fact that they’re in the literature writing class voluntarily is evident that they have the passion to learn and improve. From there, I believe that my answer will probably make or break their aspirations. My usual answers won’t be enough and if I tell a different story, I felt like I will be cheating them. So I nervously started to reveal my darkest secret.

“When I submitted my first draft, my editor said that it wasn’t publishable,” I said with a sigh. “He said that there are just so many things wrong with it to the point that I couldn’t actually fix them by myself.”

I waited for moans or groans from my audience. Instead, I saw shocked faces. I was hoping nobody would throw a ball of paper to my face and call me a fraud. I looked at the faces of the teachers and advisors present in the room, but I saw in them a slight smile as if they already understand the value of a disastrous first draft. I decided to continue my story.

I described to them the sinking feeling I had when this highly respected editor, a frank yet a good mentor as many people describe him, told me that my flow of scenes in my book was a total mess — something that I couldn’t fix without expert help, he said.

“The editor advised I need a ghostwriter,” I revealed.

I saw their confused faces.

“They’re ‘nameless’ writers who fix other people’s stories, such as mine, which are ‘terrible’ by an editor’s standards,” I explained.

The students gasped together as if it was a synchronized reaction.

“That’s horrible,” one of them reacted. I felt vulnerable by then and I expected anyone will call me a fraud. But no one did. I remembered I was teary eyed by that time because this story of my first rejected draft was something I had been hiding for years.

“What did you do after?” asked another student. The concerned reaction of my audience made me realized that they also felt the horror of losing your prestige as a writer because someone else is fixing your work. They leaned a bit more toward me to hear my answer.

“I begged him to give me a chance,” I confessed with a doubt if I should be telling this story. “I felt like my world was falling apart. I felt like my writing career was probably just something that I was only fantasizing and other people have not believed I can do. I asked the editor to tell me specifically what is wrong. Luckily, he has the time and was willing to point out how I can improve my book.”

I told the students how I filled out almost 10 pages of my notebook to jot down the things that were wrong with my book, some helpful tips the editor shared to me, and some of my personal ideas that came to mind during the discussion.

I also told my audience how the editor has given me a chance to submit an edited work, even at least the first 2 chapters. The students started to smile while listening intently to my story in anticipation of a happy ending.

I shared to them how I spent hours and days studying my notes and applying what I learned to my edited book. I told them how I worked so hard to give each paragraph of my book an improved construction taking into consideration the tips the editor has given.

“When I submitted the first 2 chapters of my edited book, the editor was so happy with my improvement. Even if there were still minor fixes needed in the edited story, the point is that he saw how much I have improved.”

My audience clapped and cheered. “The rest is history. A happy, successful history,” I added.

“As you can see, a rejected first draft can be scary. It can even end your passion for your writing career. But what matters most is that you’re passionate about writing, about learning, about improving yourself and about seeing your failures as gateways to success!”

The session ended with my audiences beaming with contagious enthusiasm and inspiration, as evident with the way they approached me and thanked me for a great talk.