Saturday, August 4, 2012


I began my (brief) career in politics in my high school government class. We were doing some kind of simulation where some of us were political candidates, some were lobbyists, and some were voters, each with a certain amount of money and power, all trying to accomplish different goals.

Now, remember, this was supposed to be fun. But the way I have fun is a little different than the way most people have fun.

To accomplish the goal on my character sheet (the election of a certain candidate and passing of some laws) I cooked up this ridiculously complicated scheme, based entirely on using the fine-print government procedures of proxy voting and bribing certain lobbyist groups with Monopoly money and cookies. (Legal? Yes, technically. Ethical? Probably not, which is why I decided that year that I should never go into politics.)

I remember looking up from my research of Congressional bylaws and saying, “Amy, no one does stuff like this. This is not normal. No one cares. And to get this to work, you’re going to have to talk to those popular kids who already think you’re weird and convince them to play along.”

But, for some reason, I did it anyway.

That particular semester, I had a newfound fascination with the soundtrack from the musical Wicked. In one song, the dashing and carefree Fiyero states one of the unwritten rules of high school, “Those who don’t try never look foolish.”

Along the same lines, there’s the wisdom of Calvin of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes: “I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep everyone’s expectations.”

On the other hand, why was the critical reaction to Pixar’s new movie Brave so unenthusiastic? Because Pixar is usually so great, so good at taking risks and being original. Standards were high, and as a review in the Denver Post put it, “Saying that Brave is entertaining but not astonishing is pretty much admitting your straight-A student got a B.”

What’s the difference between tears of joy and tears of anguish when a team or individual is announced as the silver medal winner at the Olympics? Because some (Russian gymnasts, anyone?) expected gold, and others were just happy to make it on the medal stand.

All of these scenarios are so relatable, so human. We never really grow out of high school insecurities. Overachievers among us hate settling for three-star reviews and silver medals, and underachievers are afraid bumping up the level of effort will make their life harder and embarrassing flops easier.

But the reason for these very different reactions is the same in each case: we’re all afraid of failure.

This is something a lot of writers face, although it’s certainly not limited to writers. It’s what keeps us from asking for a critique from someone who we know will be hard on us. It’s what makes us quickly throw away rejection letters and pretend we never submitted anything at all.

And, more personally, it’s what makes me sneak to the post office to mail manuscripts without even telling my parents. It’s what makes me slow to try a new market or genre. It’s what makes me want to leave marketing to the marketing people.

I’m afraid that I’m out of stories, that everyone will hate what I’ve written, and that no one will like my Facebook author page. I’m afraid that if I try, I’ll fail.

But, for some reason, sometimes I do it anyway. And that’s one thing I would say to people who asked how I’ve been published so many times in three years. I haven’t stopped being afraid of failure. I’ve just done stuff regardless of that fear.

Don’t go for the Fiyero/Calvin approach to failure, unless you happen to inhabit the land of Oz or a line-drawn comic strip, where things tend to work out. I wouldn’t recommend the Russian gymnast approach either, because you can learn a lot from failure if you approach it in the right way.

This is a terrible illustration, because, lacking the ability to predict the future, I don’t know if Pixar will be able to come back and tell a compelling, original story next summer. But because I have great faith in the creativity of that studio, I would say that they have the best approach to failure: keep creating.

This blog post, the book and one-act I’m working on right now, and my recent marketing efforts are all ways that I’ve tried to ignore my fear of failure and keep creating.

By the way, my complicated government simulation failed. I don’t remember any details about how it was supposed to work, but it didn’t. And some of my classmates were probably confirmed in their thinking that I was some weird kid who was going to grow up to be a writer or something.

Well, guess what? They were right.

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