Photo of Hilari Bell


by Hilari Bell

The other day I saw an interview with Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, who’d recently been featured on the cover of Forbes as a new billionaire business mogul, who made a fortune from scratch with nothing but a great idea. The first part of the interview was fairly interesting—she didn’t have a business degree or a lot of business experience. In fact, she was cold calling people on the phone, selling fax machines, when she came up with the idea that led to an underwear empire.

But the part I really found interesting was when the interviewer asked what she thought had most contributed to her success. She said that she had known for years that she wanted to create her own business, so she was ready when the idea arrived—but the thing that most made her success possible was that her father had always encouraged her to fail.

“Wait,” said the interviewer. “He encouraged you to fail?”

I can’t quote her exactly, but she said that when she was growing up, at least once a week, her father would ask her and her brother, “So, have you failed at anything lately?” If they said they hadn’t failed at anything, he looked very disappointed in them. And when they’d failed at something he was delighted. She remembered coming home from trying out for something or other, and proudly telling her father. “I tried, but I bombed. I was absolutely horrible at it!” He gave her a high five and told her. “Way to go! I’m so proud of you!”

And thus, her father taught her that what mattered was not whether or not you succeeded, but that you constantly tried to do things that were new and difficult. And that failure wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but to be proud of, because it meant that you were constantly trying, constantly expanding your horizons.

At this point I was fascinated, and not only by her father’s quirky, backward wisdom. But think how utterly fearless embracing that attitude would make you. If failure is something to be proud of, you could try anything. And if you fail—that’s great! If you succeed, that’s great too. Thinks about that. If failure is a gift, you go through your whole life in a no-lose situation…as long as you try.

It would also make many aspects of writing so much easier. I’m not just talking about the fear that your story won’t be good, or the fear of it being rejected. Whenever I hear some newbie writer say, “But what if they reject my story?” my reply is, “Take the ‘if’ out of that sentence. You will be rejected. I don’t care if you’re the greatest writer of the age, you’re going to be rejected. Many, many times. So you might as well get over that one now.” And boy would that “embrace failure” philosophy help in coping with rejections.

But it also applies to making bad writing better. The way everyone learns to write is by writing poorly, figuring out what you’re doing wrong, and rewriting till it’s fixed. Most writers rewrite every story at least once, and more often multiple times. (I usually do three or four major revisions.) Then you go on to the next story, apply what you’ve learned…and make new mistakes. I recently watched The Odd Life of Timothy Green—which is a wonderful, heartwarming, quirky fantasy. I think my favorite line is when the people running the adoption agency point out that the parents made mistakes with Timothy, and ask how that qualifies them to be parents. The parents admit that they’ll still make mistakes. “But we’d make different mistakes. We’d make better mistakes, next time. Yes, we’d make better mistakes.”

Learning to write is all about making mistakes, figuring out how to fix them, and fixing them…so you can go on to make better mistakes the next time. If there’s another way to learn to write, I don’t know about it. So why not embrace that process? Why not regard those failures as a glorious statement that you’re moving forward, instead of stagnating? When my critiquers tell me that (in the first true mystery I’ve written) I need to add some subplot/danger/tension to pick up the pace in a long stretch of investigation, I should say, “Wow, fantastic. I failed!” Because that failure means that I tried something new, stretching myself as a writer. (Which I did.) And it also gives me a chance to learn how to do it better the next time I write a mystery. (Which someday I probably will.) I’m not certain I can embrace this attitude as much as I should, but I’m surely going to try. Because a writer can do a lot worse than to become fearless.


  1. It would also be nice if once you had a career it stayed put! But I’m going to try to focus on mastering new skills–like marketing–and keep pushing the writing. In some ways, trying to write and sell books is an enormous leap of faith. But if failure IS an option, maybe that’s not so scary.

  2. I think I’m going to try to apply it to my life a bit more–it certainly made my last critique easier to take than usual. (Though it’s still unknown whether it will make the rewrite easier!) And nice to hear from you, Ken!

    • Good to chat with you again. I’m still using your “there’s no American Idol career-in-an-instant” piece (http://www.sfwa.org/members/bell/writingtips/spring06.html) to sum up the grunt work writers have to do; the struggling musician metaphor even makes near-empty signings and lectures look cool. Almost.

  3. Now there’s an idea. I’m not sure there IS a more important bottleneck in life, than all the things we could try or do or work at and how much we write them off as sure failures… if you raised kids to embrace that…

    Abstractions like the Batman Begins father, “You can do anything if you’re not afraid” are nice. But this one’s so specific it’s a real keeper– maybe not as the plan in itself, but as a reminder of just where the bottleneck is.

    And of course it means something that you heard it from a billionaire. You call yourself “the poster child for persistence,” and I think I need to keep a bit more of this in mind for myself.

  4. I always tell folks, especially new writers, that writing is about skill development more than knowledge attainment. And whenever a skill is involved, it requires trial and error and mistakes as the pieces come together. Great blog, H.



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