Epic Fail Part Two: Believe it Or Not Failure Isn’t (Always) Someone Else’s Fault

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As promised after the Super Bowl Sadness, I looked into people who have made mistakes and bounced back. When I googled and asked others about this I found three interesting things:

1. Lots of people have made mistakes.

2. No one wants to talk about their own mistakes.

3. It’s much easier to think even our heroes were unrecognized — that they were unfairly rejected — than it is to think about how many times they had to sweat it out and improve to get good at what they were doing.

When I asked others face to face about famous people who recovered from big mistakes, several people paused, looked at me, and then said something like:

“Well, I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I don’t want you writing about me.”

Then I often learned of the writers or artists they know who were rejected over and over again until someone finally saw their greatness.

But, I kept thinking to myself, if that’s totally true and the writer or artist changed nothing about her/his work, then the people who rejected Harry Potter, Mickey Mouse and Jaws are the ones who made the mistakes, not Rawling, Disney, or Spielberg.

What’s worse, the rejectors had no redemption. They never recovered from their mistakes because the other organizations who saw the greatness made all the money.

What bothers me most is the idea that your stuff is either good enough, or it’s not. Either the world sees you’re already great or it does not. In this view, there is no room for the reworking a book, a drawing or a movie until it’s even better.

I”m still pondering this and what it means for my own work. But for today I will tell you of one successful artist who made mistakes, learned from them, worked hard to make corrections and went on to become a name you all know. I read of his failure in A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant life of Robert “Believe it or Not “Ripley by Neal Thompson.

Robert LeRoy Ripley got his first job as a cartoonist in San Francisco with a respected newspaper when he was a young man. Soon after, he was fired from his dream job because his work was not good enough for the publication.

Rather than rail against his fate or go back to the small town he was raised in to live out his days doing work he did not love, Ripley started taking drawing lessons and studying other cartoonists. He kept the lessons and study up even after he got his next dream job and worked ridiculously hard long hours to improve his skills.

Ripley did not resent his firing. He knew he needed to get better and put all his energy into doing just that.

His quest for improvement sometimes bordered on obsession, and I’m hoping to avoid manic no sleep sort of behavior. Still, I admire Ripley’s focus and determination in the face of his own deficiencies.

This encourages me much more than the stories of needless rejection because the amount of effort I put into getting better is under my control.

I’d also like to think those mistaken rejectors might have gotten better and gone on to recognize the next great person who knocked at the door. I’m that kind of optimist.

To finish this up today, I’ll leave you with Ira Glass who says the hardest part about beginning is allowing yourself to crank out enough stinky material until you get better, knowing all along that what you’re making smells like the fish those guys at Pike Place Market fling into the air. In other words, put in the time making mistakes.

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Hamming It Up: Why We Need an Audience

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(Photos by Alana T)

“Listening is an act of love.”

Two weeks ago Morf Morford used those words as he told his story right before I had to get up under the lights. Although I can’t find the person he was quoting, somehow the thought calmed me when I sat shivering in my chair in the middle of a dark audience, contemplating getting up in front of a crowd on the Drunken Telegraph, an amazing community story telling organization in Tacoma. It was my hope that the crowd would love me through that blinding stage light and the story I felt driven to tell.

I discovered a while back that I need an audience. A part of me worries that this makes me a ham. But I’m betting that we all need an audience, large or small — someone to witness us and push us to do things a notch or two higher than we would without anyone watching. Dan Blank, a writing and marketing coach, recently said writers fear apathy much more than we fear criticism. “The reality is that the WORSE thing is that you create and share something, and no one even notices.”

It’s true that I can practice by myself. I can write stories, knit doggie sweaters, bake squash or play Adagio on my clarinet without anyone watching. And sometimes this is best so that I can safely make the multitude of mistakes that I need to make in order to improve.

But I also need the pressure of knowing someone is watching or will be watching in order to push myself to get better.

This is what happened to me on that stage. I had been trying to tell a story about my experiences in an animal shelter for twenty years. It wasn’t until I had the pressure of getting up in front of an audience that I could tell the story and find the meaning in it. The relief of getting the story out was tremendous and only possible because I had to face the fire of getting the story told on a deadline with people watching.

So I keep posting to the blog, playing my clarinet in the community band, and standing in front of students even when my face feels so red hot I could start a fire with their textbooks.

I do it because it makes me better and it makes me feel more alive. I’m so grateful to the love of the listeners, students and readers. I could not do it without them.