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.”
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.
 Samuel Beckett, Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho: Three Novels (New York: Grove Press, 1980), 85.
Perfect article to read as I head to the ACFW conference! Thanks so much! I went to print copies of the same proposal I sent you and found a stray line that should have been deleted. that should have been deleted. (Yes, just like that.) I wanted to shut my laptop on my fingers. I promise to fail better next time!
So funny, Janine!
So true. That’s why it is important to keep writing.
Thank you for your encouragement with a twist.
Thanks for the comment.
Absolutely. I cringe reading through my old articles and pray that I always will…onward! Great blog, thank you.
Yes! If our “old” stuff is just as good as our “new” stuff…that’s a bad sign.
So true! I’m currently editing/re-writing my first book out of eight and it needs work!! With that one book in hand I went to ACFW 7 years ago! This mountain has been hard to climb, but I look back and realize how far I’ve come. And ever climbing. Maybe this is the fun of it too?
Yes. Ever climbing. Ever falling. 🙂
Damon J. Gray
I have a sign on my office wall, written in large letters:
Go with what works!
Rebekah Love Dorris
Great article! Made me think of this old favorite, which is such a comfort after failure:
Oh, I loved this movie as a kid! Somehow I’ve forgotten most of it, including this encouraging ditty. Good add, Rebekah.
That is better than my go-to response, spoken best by Marlon Brando in this clip from my favorite movie.
Rebekah, my family loves that movie! And Janine, that phrase comes to MY mind sometimes, too. 🙂
Thank you, Bob. Now I’ll feel better as I fail better.
Bob, excellent advice. Thanks for sharing.
I always say you haven’t really failed until you quit trying.
Thanks everyone! Guess all of us with the passion of the pen have spent time in the boat of failure.
I have to say that I have been quite impressed with the comradery amongst Christian authors. It is nice to see that when others are bailing out their “boat of failure,” they aren’t dumping extra water into mine!
Love what you said, Janine! Thanks. Yes. There’s been a lot of “bailing.” It’s so great to have friends who encourage!
Too right, Carol!
Perfect timing, Bob. “Good Enough” and I have been wrestling over a piece that’s due tomorrow. I don’t even like wrestling, but those crazy thoughts had me pinned to the mat, face planted in an ugly way with the ref comtemplating a count. Gah! Failing better sounds – well, better. Time to reorganize and attack it with a different mindset. Spot-on. Oh, and I DID look up Sisyphean task. Thanks for waiting. 😉
Yahoo! I got you to look it up. 🙂
Is there any better paean to failure and perseverance than Dire Straits’ “Walk Of Life”?
Thank you for this very encouraging post, Bob.
So true! I believe – never give up! Learn and carry on.
This post made me look over my shoulder at the countless short stories AND the big old flop of a novel I wrote many years ago. But when I think about that novel, I’m SO blessed that it failed. I’m not the same person anymore, not since God got a hold of me, and if it would have “succeeded,” I would have failed in so many ways.
I praise God for slamming that door shut and pray He opens the right one that will bring Him honor and glory. Until that time comes, I’ll keep writing, revising, and failing a little bit better.
Thank you, Bob. God bless you.
Yes, Joey, sometimes failing at the right time is much, much better than “succeeding.” God knows.
I feel better about how many rewrites I’ve done and still need to do.
Dear Bob Hostetler
Today I read your Fail Better.
I appreciated it.
Writing is hard. It’s also rewarding because that’s a way to connect with like-minded people and a way to learn to express our feelings and thoughts better.
It’s a familiar feeling for me to writing something that seems well-written at the moment, but months/years later I cringe “did I write that?”
It’s so important to realise as you say, failing is just a part of the process.
As I get better in writing, I’m able to write with a twist.
What Rosemarie Malroy said is the crucial point: “Keep writing.”
Still, I find it uncomfortable to fail so perhaps I should put a sign in my office just as Damon J. Gray wrote: “Fail fast, fail often. Go with what works!”
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