Why failure is wonderful

For a blog that is full of writing, I don’t usually talk about my writing life here. But the last few months have been all-round terrible for my work; I missed out on a mentorship opportunity that I desperately wanted, I didn’t get shortlisted for a minor prize, and I’ve had a couple of rejection emails. It’s really hard when my work is about teaching writing, to be feeling like I’m failing.

But then, I sat at my desk to try and pick myself up and do some writing and found myself staring at the origami butterflies stuck on the wall next to my computer. These were a gift from memoir writer, Wayson Choy, when I was at uni, and the live by my computer for a very particular reason and in the spirit of bolstering myself a bit, I’m posting a piece I wrote just after I graduated from my first writing degree in 2009…

 

Why Failure is Wonderful

When I went to the Brisbane Writers Festival, I was ready to give up writing. The feeling had been coming for a while. The final year of uni had been flying by, assignments were hard, and more than ever it seemed as though everyone in the course was competing against one another.  But most of all, I was tired of rejection.

It’s not as though I didn’t expect to experience some failure. I’d been prepared for it since my first day at uni. Tutors spoke about rejection letters in class, writers spoke about their failures at book launches, and at festivals, and in magazine interviews. I was warned—I knew rejection letters would come, and they did.

Because I was expecting them, every time I found one in the mailbox or read a competition announcement that didn’t list my name, I let it hurt, sometimes even had a cry, and then forced myself to move on. But the problem was that I never let myself think about the failures as anything but failures. I didn’t realise that failure can be a wonderful thing and that’s why, by the time I trudged to uni on the Friday of the Writers Festival, I’d given up.

Everyone in the class loved Wayson’s session, but I loved it just that little bit more. I loved hearing someone actually stand up and say that they wrote for money and that he wished he could churn out the sort of stuff that sells millions of copies. It was the first time I’d heard a writer talk about how cocky he was when he first started university. But when he started talking about failure, that’s when he got me. At first, I was horrified to hear his story. He told us about the first short story he wrote for a university assignment. He handed it in and was called to see his professor. Thinking that he was going to be praised for his brilliant writing, he swanned into the office feeling very pleased. But the teacher handed him back his story covered in red biro markings and said:

“Do you want to be a writer?”

Wayson told him yes, he wanted to be a writer and the teacher said: “Then learn how to punctuate.”

And he was dismissed.

At first, he thought it was a terrible thing that he’d failed the assignment rather than been praised the way he’d expected. But then he bought some punctuation books and realised his teacher was right, he didn’t know how to punctuate.

He moved on to tell a story of how, as a teacher of creative writing, he fails every single one of his students on the first story. And as he hands their piece back to them he smiles and says, “How wonderful, you’ve failed.”

He talked about failure and rejection with a smile on his face and I couldn’t understand why. The thought of having a teacher smile as they handed me back an assignment I’d failed was horrible. I kept thinking I’d hate to be in his class. But I realised later it wasn’t complete failure that he was talking about. What he was saying to us was, “you still have things to learn.”

By failing his students, Wayson — in the same way his own professor did — was asking his students if they wanted to be writers. If the student took the criticism as an opportunity to improve their writing, they were answering, “Yes, I want to be a writer.” But those who allowed the failure to defeat them were clearly saying that writing was not for them.

Later Wayson gave us a test. He handed out sheets of paper and asked us to make a butterfly in two minutes by only tearing and folding. Of course, all our butterflies were monstrosities and at the very end of his session, he showed us up by folding a perfect origami butterfly. While he was folding he talked about a butterfly’s metamorphosis.

“A butterfly is a universally beautiful thing. But to get that way it goes through metamorphosis. It goes from being a little sluggy thing to a caterpillar and, from that, it sheds its skin a dozen times. Finally, it builds the chrysalis, hibernates and emerges a beautiful butterfly.

“The difference between your butterfly and mine is craft. I know the craft that goes into making one and you do not. It’s no different with writing. Writing has to go through metamorphosis to become something that’s considered universally beautiful.”

All the way home I kept thinking about failure and craft. I might have been studying the craft and expecting failures and rejection letters but I had always looked at the two as completely separate aspects of the writing life. I had never considered what Wayson was really saying was failure is wonderful because it helps identify weak spots in the craft. He was telling me if I get back a story covered in red biro, that’s a wonderful thing because now I know what I’m doing wrong.

He was asking me if I wanted to be a writer.

I realised that was what other writers and tutors had been saying to me, but it just didn’t click with me until Wayson made me an origami butterfly.

Since the festival, I have noticed a change in my attitude towards writing. I no longer hand a story to my writing group and hope to be praised. I hand things in and ask them to be brutal; I don’t want any more compliments where they’re not due. I want to be a writer. I want to learn the craft and see a metamorphosis in my writing and I want, more than anything, to experience the failures along the way that will ultimately make me a better writer.

I don’t think meeting Wayson means rejection will no longer hurt. But now, every time I open one of those letters, I’ll smile and think: “How wonderful, I’ve failed.”

Wayson Choy is a Chinese-Canadian writer. You can read more about him and his wonderful books here.

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