Learning to Fail Better



There’s a chapter from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that I make students read. It’s called “Shitty First Drafts,” and it’s largely about the “fantasy of the uninitiated” — the idea that writers “take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.” It’s a myth, I tell the students. But it’s a myth that experienced writers still have a hard time abandoning. We believe that real writers pump out perfect prose.

A few months ago, Fear No Lit accepted my pitch for an interview series called Fail Better. It has adapted a little bit, but remained close to the original intent of debunking the “fantasy of the uninitiated.” The series explores how writers become better through trial and error, failing and learning how to fail a little bit less, a little bit better, the next time. It has been fun to learn from each writer.

Here is a list of links to the interviews so far.

1. John McCarthy

A lot of the poems in Ghost County started off way too long. I don’t want to throw myself under the bus, but in the copy of the book I read from, I still make edits. One of the poems has at least six or seven lines crossed out. I’ve even reworded the way a few of the sentences read.

2. Stephanie Wilbur Ash

You need to be honest about your failure, but you can’t dwell there. You have to move forward quickly and see that knowledge as an opportunity. You have to let your feelings go and be scientific about it. … A negative result is still a result in science. You don’t feel bad about a negative result. It’s just a result.

3. Sarah Layden

With very few exceptions, I’m happy to be published, happy that someone out in the world found some sort of connection with my work. There’s little harm in being published early and online, other than being internet haunted by your past self. It’s like having your gawky seventh grade school picture on your work ID badge. Both exist, but you wouldn’t necessarily choose the former to represent who you are now.

4. Eric Blix

For me, the pleasures come when I discover something new either about a project or about the act of writing. Maybe the biggest thrill is discovering a question I didn’t know I was asking. This probably applies to both drafting and revising, which for me typically overlap to the point of being essentially the same thing.

Next up on Fail Better: an interview with short story writer Hasanthika Sirisena in June!