Failure

Magic Garden, Philadelphia

Magic Garden, Philadelphia

I’m no scientist, but still, I’m fascinated by the process of scientific exploration and discovery. I enjoy reading non-fiction written by scientists, like Michio Kaku, Hannah Holmes, Candace Pert; my favorite column in the New York Times Magazine is “Diagnosis,” where there’s a patient who presents with mysterious symptoms who is puzzled over and prodded by many well-meaning, smart doctors until one of them hits on the “Eureka!” moment (and yes, I like the TV show “House,” too). Reading and watching TV—that’s pretty much where I learned all I know about science. (And I’ll admit it, it’s sketchy at best.)

Still, it’s gotten to be kind of an obsession the last few years, this science-reading. I read things way over my head, about string theory and physics and opiate receptors. (I’ve learned to accept some obsessions, and this one seems harmless enough.)

I can’t explain quantum theory or recite the periodic table of elements, and after quizzing two kids in preparation for AP Bio, I’m sure I’d never pass if I had to take it myself. But I learned something important. I learned that scientists know and accept something that many writers want to banish from our lives: failure. With a capital F.

Every scientist understands that the way to a breakthrough is via failure. Failure is expected. Every wrong exploration produces not wasted time but valuable knowledge. Knowing what doesn’t work leads you closer to what does work.

Somehow, many of us writers are led to believe that every effort needs to be our very best work. What counts, I’ve decided, is giving our best EFFORT. Sinking in, enjoying the process, imagining the possibilities, letting an idea carry us as far as it will go, knowing that some of those ideas aren’t strong enough to go all the way. And that is okay.

A scientist doesn’t go in hoping or thinking they will fail. They go in excited about what they might discover. Sure, it’s frustrating. What worth doing isn’t sometimes frustrating? Showing up to write and trying it from many angles, showing up and learning what works and what doesn’t, plain old trial and error, is the way to the moment where something alchemical happens.

Where your dozens of tiny words fall away and suddenly, a story or a poem, a beautiful whole thing, appears in their place.

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