Dealing with Failure and Misplaced Ambition


Writers, don't let failure keep you from the page.
Photo by ludalmg90 via Flickr

Writing, Failing, and True Love
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

A few weeks ago, I talked about the futility of chasing unattainable dreams and the difficulty in determining what’s impossible and what is just difficult to achieve.  I pointed out that more often than not, one of our worst habits as writers is to worry about how our work will be received. “I believe that focusing too much on how your work is received limits potential,” I said. “If you’re too busy glancing behind your shoulder, keeping a wary eye on the angry mob ready, willing and able to pester, deride and condemn your efforts every step of the way.”

In her piece, “Why My Book Was A  Bad Idea,”  Corinne Purtill discusses what happened when she wrote a book for the wrong reasons, and how she came to reassess her relationship with writing, concluding “My relationship with writing today is neither glamorous nor exciting. We will not get each other into fancy places; we will not make anyone rich. We have fallen instead into a pattern much closer to the comfortable grooves of love: two homebodies shuffling around the same desk, battling frustration and disappointment, witnessing failure and choosing, against all odds, to stay.”

So how are things with you and your writing?  Are you still in the honeymoon phase, racing out to meet each other whenever you can spare the time? Is it hot and heavy – leaving you breathless and wrung out but craving more?  Or are you feeling dissatisfied and pensive – is writing failing to live up to its promises?  Are you staring longingly out the window, wondering about the other fish in the sea and debating whether you hitched yourself to the right star?

Dissatisfaction and heartache in any relationship or endeavor can often be traced back to expectation and the disappointment we feel when things don’t work out as planned.  As Purtill admits, her decision to write a book was based almost entirely on ambition;“The thing that was going to anchor this period on my CV, the thing that would make clear I was a Serious Writer and not a drifter who couldn’t hold a job, was this Book.”

The flip side of that disappointment is fear – if this can’t or won’t happen, then what?  If you can’t rely on the natural order of things or the way you anticipate events will play out, then what can you rely on?  Are we all just floating aimlessly in a vast sea of possibility, knocked around by waves and battered by indifferent winds – direction and intent completely meaningless.

Are we out of control?  Or is control an illusion?

When you distill the act of writing – remove all the expectations and responsibilities we routinely place on our craft – something genuine and beautiful emerges: we may not have control over our destinies, but writing can help us find meaning in what we do.  Writing helps us record our pasts and move us towards understanding where we’re headed and if we’re going in the right direction.  I do not know if the Gods watch us avidly, waiting eagerly to mess up our grand plans, of if we are masters of our destiny.  I tend to believe that we have less control than we imagine, but more ability than we believe.

My take on Purtill’s essay is that she believes in writing for the love of it, not with an eye towards the end result.  She compares her literary efforts with the birth of her child, saying:

“In the last year and a half, since the arrival of an actual baby, it has been made stunningly clear to me that the things you love don’t owe you anything – not success, not plaudits, not a decent night’s sleep, nothing. You give them your effort and devotion because they deserve it because their presence turns a light on in your dim little life and there will never be enough ways to say “thank you.”

I love the idea of writing – or anything/anyone you love – turning on a light in your dim life.  When my writing’s going well, that’s exactly how I feel – lit up from the inside; energized and revitalized and willing to do whatever’s required in the service of the story.

As for failure, Purtill’s insight on that count is also worth sharing.  Warning that “You can’t confuse what you do in the service of ambition with what you do for love,” she admits “I love writing, too, and I’m sorry to admit that I was using it to selfish ends.”

“This was the first significant thing I’ve done professionally that flat-out failed,” Purtill explains, going on to say that while past disappointments could be justified, in this case, “There’s no massaging this one. I said that I wanted to write a book, and I did, but it was only once no one wanted to publish it that I realized that what I really wanted was to be a published author and that I most assuredly am not.”

Failure can be debilitating – even when we know from the outset that we’re not necessarily pursuing a pure goal.  And while some authors are fearless – papering their office walls with rejections and proudly declaring that they are merely misunderstood or too intellectual or obscure or innovative for the common man – most of us just want to curl up under the covers and forget the whole thing.  There’ve been plenty of times in my life when I wished for the Men in Black to come and erase my short term memory – oh to live a life where that failure never existed.

But we’d be doing ourselves a disservice by erasing our missteps and unsuccessful endeavors.  Just like the protagonist in the film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we too would be shallow, hollow versions of ourselves if we eliminate our writing failures.  Especially when, more often than not, those failures lead to future success.

The truth is, we aren’t always going to succeed – probably not most of the time actually.  There are also going to be times when we use writing as a tool rather than a life’s craft; it’s inevitable, and it’s human nature.  But just Purtill discovered after her second, heartfelt, memoir was also rejected, we must all remember not to let the failure keep us from the page.  Equally important is to fight with all our might against the tendency to look to the outside world for validation.

“I put myself out to the Universe, just like Oprah said you should, and the Universe has responded, gently but firmly: Please stop,” says Purtill.  “But I haven’t! I’m still writing, and now it feels more like an act of rebellion than the efforts of a schoolgirl desperate to please – a rebellion, to be clear, against nothing but the obnoxiously persistent conviction that external validation is the only kind that counts.”

Cover photo by Richard Nix via Flickr

7 thoughts on “Dealing with Failure and Misplaced Ambition

  1. What did Purtill mean when she said that the universe was asking her to stop? I’m not following that part, in what I found when I sit down to do what I love the universe is prodding me along my way, sending me what I need (not necessarily what I “think” I need or want) but once through it I become aware of the brilliance that my mind doesn’t wrap around instantly. I write to write and it’s hard to let that be the main reason, to delve into my love and express {write}.

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