On the Noble Failure
My friend the yogi and author Stephen Cope calls early attempts at meditation “the noble failure”. I have loved this phrase since I first heard Steve use it, and have often thought that it relates to the writing process. What does it mean to embark, to attempt a piece of writing, whether essay, story, novel, comedy sketch, screenplay, whatever? The very word essay means attempt. There is no such thing as perfection. No writer ever achieves what she hopes for–and if a writer thinks she has, she’s often deluded. In fact, the writers I know who have bought their own press, so to speak, are usually the ones perverting their gifts with their own overweening confidence.
So. Failure. What does it mean, to attempt failure? I think it’s actually incredibly liberating. One of my greatest mentors used to regularly tell me that all novels are failures. So why try? Why try if all we’re going to do is fail? Because the other word in Steve Cope’s phrase is this: noble. What a beautiful idea, the idea that failure–a high wire act, an attempt, a swan dive into the unknown–can be noble. The nobility is, I think, in the focus, the faith, the willingness to go into the corners, the depths. To give the page everything we’ve got.
I am at work on a new novel, and I’m attempting things I’ve never dreamed of attempting before. Whenever a rash idea occurs to me–why not try this crazy thing?–it is instantly accompanied by its shadow, the other voice that says but you can’t do that. I’ve learned over the years to ignore that voice. I hear it, sure, but I move past it. I can try anything, after all. What’s the worst thing that will happen? I will fail. But the only failure worth risking is the noble kind. What we can hope is to look back at our body of work and say, I held back nothing.