Tuesday, November 1, 2011

On the Benefit of Failure

Happy beginning of NaNoWriMo!

In order to keep me focused on completing National Novel Writing Month this year, and to keep this blog going while I do so, I've decided to do something a wee bit different with Harry Potter for Writers during the month of November.  Instead of my normal long (and sporadic) in-depth analyses, I'm going to post very short excerpts from Harry Potter or quotes from JK Rowling that makes one succinct but strong point to serve as inspiration for those of us doing NaNo.  The trick is, I'm going to post these daily.

The tips may be craft related, examples of good writing from the series, or quotes that give insight into JK Rowling's writing process.  Anything goes, but I'll keep them short and pointed so that we can gain the encouragement but hurry back into our stories.

First up, and this may seem a bit odd, but I want to focus on failure.  Not all of us will complete NaNo, and that's ok.  Many of us may also be frustrated by where we are in our writing journeys, worried that we haven't yet gotten that agent, editor, multi-book contract, NYT listing....

But I want you to listen first to some of my favorite words from JK Rowling, and they actually do not come from a Harry Potter book, but from her commencement address at Harvard in 2008 (bolded highlights are my addition):

I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one...So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies...
I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom:
As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.
Rowling's story, both in Harry and in life, is truly inspirational.  Especially to writers.  If you have not yet, you should read her whole address as she also speaks powerfully of imagination.

As we begin this fresh month of NaNoWriMo, let us not be afraid to fail, but afraid of never having tried.  And remember that the length is not as important as the content.

Find me on NaNo at SPSipal.

Are you doing NaNo?  If so, what story are you writing?

And thanks to Martina @4KidLit for the title of this series!