I was inspired by a brief article entitled The Function of Failure by Dr. Cheryl Lentz (RefractiveThinker.com). Dr. Cheryl's basic premise in this wise and succinct piece is "fail faster to succeed sooner." Her allegory stars an imaginary plumber by the name of Peter. We are aghast that this dude has the brass to charge $100 for what looks like a mere 15 minutes of work. Yet, the good doctor reminds us, we are not only paying Pete for the work he's done today to unclog our toilet, but for the many times he failed to fix similar problems in the past. In other words, Peter's time and expertise comes at a premium rate now only because we can depend on him to get the job done once and for all in a single, quick visit. And, he's earned his sterling reputation for reliability as well as his high price tag by failing to get 'er done a number of times previously.
"The quicker Peter failed (Translation: learned how not to fix something)," Lentz concludes, "the sooner he succeeded -- and learned." We writers are usually not called upon to "fix" something. In fact, the vast majority of us are not "called upon" at all. We write, fueled by compelling creative impulses and blind faith. Then, ultimately, we have to go and sell our poetry door to door (not literally, but that's what it feels like). The second part of the equation amounts to a gig with a ridiculously high rate of failure.
Every profession has its inherent expectations for success. A major league left fielder is at the top of his game if he gets a hit 30% of the time or more. Pete the plumber wouldn't have a prayer of sustaining a thriving business with that batting average. A veteran NBA shooting guard is guaranteed tens of millions every season for making a mere 45% of his shots from the field. A plumber is expected to perform at a 95% clip at the very least. And, if he doesn't get it right today, he is obliged to return pronto to make good on his shortfall.
According to Jimmy Webb (one of the most successful pop song crafters in history), "...best case scenario," for songwriters, "90% of our work will be completely ignored by the public." Here's the hard-to-face, bottom-line truth: as a tunesmith, you can keep workin' at it for a lifetime -- in fact, you could even be the most brilliant melodist and/or lyricist in the entire Universe -- and there is still no guarantee you will ever see an iota of success. Not one dime of income, not one smidgeon of recognition, not even a pat on the back -- other than from your parents, a supportive aunt, cousin, or a dewy-eyed, admiring next-door neighbor. This same reality, I think you'll agree, applies to nearly every artistic pursuit. There IS one guarantee, however: IF you stop practicing your craft, stop doing the work, if you pack it in, you will NOT succeed. Hmmmm.
So, in order to keep those creative juices flowing and survive (if you can call a series of inevitable rejections "flow"), we writers need to continue to work smarter, always seeking excellence, persevere, gut it out, and look at every "no" as what it actually is: another step closer to a "yes." Corny as Nebraska in June, I know. But, that's the absolute minimum amount of faith required here. It's hard, but nobody's gonna cut those tunes if they don't hear 'em. And, if they do hear 'em, you will definitely get a whole lot more passes than cuts, even if you're one of the Top Dogs like Jimmy Webb. When my friend, Hall of Famer Rory Bourke, was asked if it ever got easier, he responded thusly: "No, you just hear 'no' faster."
We all tend to take rejection personally. But, here's an absolute fact: a "no" is less a reflection on you or your work than it is a revelation of the state of mind of the gatekeeper giving you a two-thumbs down. As a songwriter, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, poet, or whatever your creative aspiration is, "no" doesn't necessarily mean that your work is not up to par, or that you are incapable of delivering the goods. If you have any talent at all and you're actively doing everything you can to hone your skills, what "no" means is that the person on the other side of the desk is simply not looking for what you're putting in front of her at this very minute. However, take heart, brothers and sisters because there is good news: IT CAN TURN ON A DIME. Tomorrow (I kid you not), the same piece that just received a boisterous raspberry could suddenly become the flavor of the month.
This is not to say that everything we create is flawless, that we shouldn't continue to seek coaching, listen to and apply feedback, always striving to sharpen our tools. Yes, every one of us has his or her own direct connection, as it were, to the gods of inspiration. But, ultimately, for most of us, great writing is re-writing, re-writing, re-writing. Only a dogged, nose-to-the-grindstone pursuit of excellence can achieve a truly competitive result. In other words, we have to fail time and time again to finally succeed. For a writer, it's not just "fail faster to succeed sooner," it's fail enough to find any success at all.