The Writing Life

Fail Better

Writing is hard. Writing for publication is even harder. And writing to be read and re-read is a Sisyphean task (go ahead, look it up; I’ll wait).

So it is no wonder that Samuel Beckett’s line from his novel, Worstward Ho, has been adopted not only by athletes (they are tattooed on Stanislas Wawrinka’s arm) and billionaires (Richard Branson cited the quote in an article about his airline’s future) but also by many writers.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”[1]

For Beckett’s words to become a motivational mantra is deliciously ironic, considering his bleak oeuvre. But they nonetheless supply great wisdom for writers. Because success (at least as many define it) is both elusive and fleeting.

My first paid article appeared in a Christian teen magazine when I was fifteen years old (I showed my older brother the $5 check and he shook his head. “There goes your amateur status.” And he was right; ever since, I’ve been ineligible for the writing event in the Olympics). I was so proud of that article, then. I look at it now with amazement and horror. Wow.

My first book was published around my thirty-fourth birthday. I’m still proud of it, but I was so happy to be given the opportunity to correct, revise, and update it for a new edition after nineteen years and 300,000 copies.

Have you ever read something you wrote just last year without some dismay? Without shaking your head at how much better it could have—should have—been? It can be disconcerting to see how poor your prose (or poetry) was just a little while ago, but that doesn’t mean you’re a poor writer. It might mean you’re learning. You’re growing. You may still be failing, but you’re failing better.

That, I suggest, should be the goal. Year by year, day by day.

Every article, blog post, and book I’ve ever written is a failure. It wasn’t good enough. It didn’t say exactly what I wanted to say. It didn’t sell well enough. I look at other authors’ writings with admiration, even envy, but I know all too well the struggle that goes into my own work and the dissatisfaction that comes out of it. But no matter. I keep at it. I keep trying. I keep failing. And then I try again, fail again, and hope to fail better the next time.


[1] Samuel Beckett, Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho: Three Novels (New York: Grove Press, 1980), 85.

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