Fail Often, Fail Well

By Eli Ryder

Photo by  Steve Johnson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

My deadline for this post was April 2. Somewhere in the juggling of adjunct schedules at two colleges, training to teach for a third, wrangling my toddler, and alternating writing sessions between fiction projects I’m working on and application packages I need to send out, I dropped the ball on this post. Coincidentally, April 2 is my mom’s birthday, so, uh, Happy Birthday, Mom.

I’ve been thinking about time travel lately. Hermione had a time turner, right? Marty had his flux-capacitated Delorean, and every Doctor has the Tardis. What outstanding tools those would be. I could go back and get this post in on time while not missing out on all the other stuff I need to make happen. I could go back in time to before each of my daughter’s tantrums and see what it was that set her off, get rid of it, and all that confrontational anxiety would melt away. I could go back and not engage in that ridiculous conversation on Facebook, and again feel all that confrontational anxiety melt away. I could go back to each rejected story I’ve submitted and punch up what needs fixing, virtually guaranteeing acceptance. I could not dump coffee on my beloved Macbook Pro. Yes, I am still thinking about that.

I could read all of our submissions the moment they arrive. How great would that be?

We have to fail, and then take responsibility for those failures, in order to grow.

Despite all these very practical uses, time travel is probably not a good idea. There’s the whole, “If you fix things in time travel, then the new timeline won’t lead you to traveling back to fix them and then they won’t be fixed” paradox, for one thing. For another, being overwhelmed by all the things we’d fix in the past isn’t going to solve being overwhelmed in the present. For a few more reasons, check out Premee Mohamed’s “More Tomorrow,” here on our site. Most importantly, though, fixing mistakes before they happen robs us of the benefit of failure. Sure, it’d be great if everything we ever tried to do worked like gangbusters the first time out, but that’s just not reality. We have to fail, and then take responsibility for those failures, in order to grow. This idea is the foundation for the work I do in my academic life, and certainly stretches into my writing.

That ridiculous Facebook conversation I had the other day that I’d like to take back? It was with a writer who thinks his stories are not being published because editors are not reading them in their entirety. The writer argued there’s nothing at all in his stories that justifies not finishing them, and that editors of literary magazines have a responsibility to read each submission as though it is possibly the next Greatest Thing To Happen To Words. Here at Automata, we hope every story we read is just that—but most stories aren’t.

I would have told him stories should justify being finished, instead of not justifying being abandoned. But I realized that I wasn’t going to effect any change in the conversation. The writer was refusing to acknowledge his own failures, and placing the responsibility for success on someone else’s shoulders. There’s no learning happening there, no improvement. Which is where we’d all be if we were just hopping back and fixing things without enduring the consequences of our failures. Revision is both a consequence and benefit of failing previous attempts.

I have to embrace my total deadline and time management muckery here and do something to ensure it doesn’t happen again. New task list software (I’m a serious productivity geek), new notifications, new sacrifices, all options are on the table. This is as it should be with revision, though it’s often hard to ignore our emotional connections to the work. Trust, though, that no story is perfect, save maybe “A Good Man is Hard To Find.” It all needs work, and selling writing is largely a matter of taking responsibility for and then rectifying the flaws in the writing.

So, no time travel for me, unless I can dodge future treadmill activities by going back and knocking every donut I’ve ever had right out of my hand. Short of that, I’ll take the mistakes and what I learn from them.