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Monday, November 18, 2019

How to Add Dimension to Your Story's Theme

A lot of writers believe you cannot intentionally write to a theme. I completely disagree. And I'm suspicious that those who say that, just don't understand how to write to theme intentionally. They claim that if you do, you'll just become preachy. Sure, that can absolutely happen, but it only happens when you don't understand how theme actually works in a story.

You see, for a theme statement to be powerful, it needs to have opposition. Who cares if the tortoise in "The Tortoise and the Hare" wins, if he isn't racing the hare to begin with? No one. The thematic statement ("It's better to move forward at a steady pace than go so fast we burn ourselves out") is only powerful because we see it paired up with its opposite (the hare).

Often it's helpful to breakdown how theme functions, like I did in this article. But here is a quick recap.

Every story has a thematic statement.

A thematic statement is essentially the teaching of a story. So for the Good Samaritan, the thematic statement is, "We should love, be kind to, and serve everyone."

The Little Red Hen: If you don't contribute or work, you don't get the rewards of those efforts.

The Ant and the Grasshopper: If all we do is have fun and entertain ourselves, we won't be prepared for difficult times.

Harry Potter: Love is the most powerful force in the world

On a broader scope, we have a theme topic. The subject or topic about which something is taught. It's the concept, without the teaching attached. It's what the theme or story is "about," in an abstract sense.

Here are the theme topics of those stories:

The Little Red Hen: Contribution and work

The Ant and the Grasshopper: Preparation

Harry Potter: Love

In a strong story, the theme topic will be explored during the narrative, through plot or character or both. The story will ask (directly or indirectly) questions about the theme topic. This can happen through main characters and main plots, or side characters and subplots, or all of the above.

Often, in most stories, the protagonist's character arc starts an a false or inaccurate idea about the theme topic and ends on the true thematic statement. Example: Harry starts unloved and powerless, living in a cupboard. By the end, he's surrounded by supporters, and he's willing to sacrifice himself (the ultimate manifestation of love) to pave the way for Voldemort's defeat. 

Between the false thematic statement and the true thematic statement is the struggle that leads to transformation, or at least, demonstrates a point. 

Sounds great, right? But what do we put there? After all, that transition part of the story will take up most of the story, and so far, we only have black and white: false thematic statement vs. true thematic statement. I mentioned that the theme topic needs to be questioned and explored. And by the climax, it needs to be proven. Do we just reiterate the same false statement and true statement over and over?

Life is rarely so black and white. It's more complex.

To get ideas, it's helpful to give your theme topic more dimension.

Luckily, Robert McKee (who I've been re-studying, as you may have noticed) has a method that will help you do just that. He doesn't technically relate this to the term "theme," but he relates it to what he calls a story's "value," but I consider that concept nearly the same thing as "theme topic." (He's just coming at it from a different angle.) So, I'm going to show how it applies to theme.

I'll be honest, this was hard for me to wrap my head around, at first. But over time, the idea has become clearer to me.

So here is how this goes, from my perspective, in relation to theme (I've altered it slightly).

First, identify the theme topic of your story.

Then identify its opposite. Its contradiction.

From there, you have what he calls the "contrary." It's not really the theme topic's exact opposite, but it's not the theme topic either. It's contrary to the theme topic. It's not the thing, but it's not the direct contradiction of the thing. It's different, in some way.

Then we take it a step further. We look for something more negative than the negative. What is worse than the opposite? What is a step more extreme? McKee calls this the "negation of the negation."

 Let's fill this in with the theme topic of love, so you can see how this works.

The opposite of love is hate. Simple. But then it gets more complex. What is contrary to love? It's not the same, but it is not a direct opposite either.

 Indifference isn't love, but it's not really hate either. It's in between.

What is worse than hate? What is a step more negative? Or more extreme? What is the negation of the negation?

As McKee explains, it's one thing to be hated and to know it. But to actually be hated by those who you think love you? People who want to pretend they care about you, but actually wish and do you ill? Now that gives me shivers.

It's important to know that it's okay to come up with variations. Real life is complex, so there can be multiple answers. This is just an exercise to help give dimension to your theme topic.

For example, another negation of negation could be this:

If you think about it, hating yourself is even worse than hating other people, in some ways. You are always with yourself. You can never get away. Now that sounds like living H-E-double-hockey-sticks. And also, if you can't love yourself, you can't love other people, or at least, not as well.

When I was learning this method, I was super confused by how to come up with the negation of the negation. Part of it is because I've never had to practice that. I mean, who has? (I also altered these charts a little from McKee's version, to try to make it clearer.) Luckily, he literally gives over a dozen examples, and here is what I've learned to look for in a negation of negation:

- Deception. Something being bad is one thing. Something that's truly bad pretending to be good is even scarier.

- Self-damning. Having to work against a damning force is one thing. When you are damning yourself and don't see it or can't get out of it, you're screwed.

Grotesque or More Extreme. It's bad to murder people. To murder people then eat them? Bleegh, that seems too unnatural to even mention in this post! It's bad to torture people. But to torture children? Not even the scuzziest criminals will let that slide.

Here are some other examples.

Theme topic: Truth

If you are believing your own lies? Well, you're never going to get to truth.

Theme topic: Freedom

 What do you mean North Koreans are enslaved? They love their country!

Theme topic: Justice

Sure, we all need to obey the law. But some of us can change the law whenever we want.

Now, I want to acknowledge that in some stories, the theme topic may be an inherently "negative" value. Maybe the true theme topic isn't justice, but injustice. In cases like that, I think it's still probably best to start with the "positive" value.

If you are still confused, no worries. I had to think and play with this for several days until I got it down. And don't forget, you can have variations, or perhaps, even more than one answer.

In a future book I want to write, I'm pretty sure the theme topic is going to be "control." Here is how my chart looks.

Responsibility is similar to control, but not the same. If you are responsible for something or someone, that doesn't necessarily mean you have full control over it. So I put it for the contrary.

What's worse than things being out of your control?

You being out of your control. What if you lose control of your own actions? Or your own thought patterns?

Alternatively, I also came up with this variation.

Authority is similar to responsibility, but not exactly the same thing. Maybe I want that value to be my contrary. Heck, or maybe I want to explore both concepts.

And likewise, what's also scary is when you have perceived control. We all want to believe we have some control over our own lives. What if in reality, you thought you did, but you didn't? And all your choices were actually meaningless, or perhaps worse, someone else was being your puppet master the whole time? Maybe I want to explore both of those alongside a lack of self-control. Maybe I want to explore all those values. After all, this is just an exercise to help me come up with them.

And if I wanted to take this further, I could look at a secondary theme topic to generate ideas. Most novels have more than one theme. Love is the primary theme of Harry Potter, but choice is a secondary theme.

A secondary theme I see emerging with my future book is sacrifice. So I might brainstorm this.

Interestingly, I can look at how these play into the values of control. If people are self-indulgent, they lack self-control. If someone has authority or responsibility over something, they may need to make sacrifices or compromises. Or maybe someone thinks they are controlling an outcome by making a sacrifice, but in reality, something higher up is in control, rendering the sacrifice meaningless--now that's painful.

Once you've brainstormed four slots of your theme topic, you have plenty of dimension to explore, plenty of hard questions to ask, during the middle/struggle/transition part, which makes up most of the story. (And this may be doubly true if you incorporated a secondary theme topic.)

So how do we get that into the actual text?

Well, like I said before, through plot and character. It will be the main plot and main characters, but can also be subplots and side characters.

I recently saw The Little Mermaid musical, which varies a bit from the movie, but is similar enough. So I'm going to use it as an example.

The theme topic of The Little Mermaid is belonging. From the beginning, Ariel feels drawn to the surface, in fact, she's already convinced she belongs up there.

Here is what our chart might look like.

But despite aching to live on the surface, Ariel begins stuck under the sea, where her desires leave her isolated and alienated from her own kind, even her own family. She starts in a state contrary to the thematic statement.

In order to feel isolated--like you don't belong--you have to be around people who don't understand you. Cue Triton, who despite being her only parent and favoring Ariel above his other daughters, understands her least of all the characters. This brings in father and daughter conflict that escalates through the first act.

But other characters tolerate Ariel and/or her fascinations with humans. Sure, she has friends, but none of them are her own species. Sure, others understand that she likes human things, but they don't share her need to be a part of them. Even her sisters, who dislike her, ultimately tolerate her to some extent. But toleration, even when well meaning, is ultimately weaker than belonging. Flounder says too much; Sebastian betrays her collection.

What about the negation of the negation? What about when people feel they are elite? Supreme over others? They don't want to belong to something. They want to rule over something. Ursula fits that. She preys on unfortunate souls. In the musical, she sings about how she killed all her sisters to try to get the throne. She is the negation of the negation.

And the plot moves through all these characters. As Ariel feels like she belongs with Eric, those who tolerate, alienate, and want to rule over her, all react in their appropriate ways, creating more conflict. As the story progresses, Ariel moves permanently into the positive value. She belongs on the surface, with Eric.

On Halloween, I watched Signs with my family. I know some people hate that movie (*cough cough* Blake Snyder from Save the Cat *cough*), but we love it! Afterwards, I made a theme topic chart of it.

The protagonist, Graham, used to have faith, but at the start of the story, he's faithless. By the end of the story, his faith is restored. In between faith and faithless fits agnostic. It's neither fully one or the other. While no one character embodies that value, it's still explored and questioned near the midpoint of the story (interesting, since it's a great transitional state to be in, smack in the middle of the story), in a conversation between Graham and Merril.

What's the negation of the negation? Well, not having faith is one thing, but when you don't have faith in yourself, you're screwed. How can you do anything if you don't believe at least a little you can? Graham hits this point when he doesn't believe any of them will survive the night. He doesn't have hope or faith in anything anymore. Not even himself or his loved ones. Notice this is around plot point 2, which is technically the "Dark Night of the Soul" moment for protagonists.

Unlike The Little Mermaid, in Signs, separate characters don't embody each value, but by the end of the movie, we've encountered all four as the plot unfolds.

Often in the plot, the values will escalate. We might go from the topic, to the contrary, to the contradictory, to the negation of the negation, before finishing back on the topic.

Coco does this well.

Theme topic: Remembrance

Remembering someone on the Day of the Dead is intentional.

Indifference is when you recall them, but don't really care about them.

Forgetting is when you unintentionally don't remember someone.

And intentional erasure is when you want someone to be forgotten.

At the beginning of the movie, the family is all getting ready to remember their ancestors for the Day of the Dead. But drawn to music, Miguel is indifferent to this, even when they try to explain it to him.

He ends up in the land of the dead, where, at the midpoint, he learns that there is a second death, one that happens when the living no longer remember you. This is a real death, and why Hector, in part, is frantic about being remembered by the living.

As the story moves toward plot point two, we learn that Ernesto de la Cruz is doing the worst of the worst--he's intentional trying to erase Hector from history!

By the time Miguel returns home, all of the values have been reconciled back to the first. He is no longer indifferent. He keeps Coco from forgetting her father. And within a year, everyone knows the truth about Hector's role in history.

Interestingly, all of this is foreshadowed through the characters before the inciting incident.

It's important to note that you do not have to go in that escalating order to write a powerful story. Lots of successful stories don't.

The point is to hit and explore different values of your theme topic. When you do that, the true thematic statement will shine all the brighter. A lot of people forget to consider the negation of the negation, which is really, the end of the line, the worst of the worst, and including it can really strengthen a story. Remember, it's the struggle and transformation that make the it powerful.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Accidentally Undercutting Tension (and How to Stop)

Tension and conflict are two different things. And before I get into this writing problem I encounter from time to time, I need to make sure we are all on the same page.

Conflict: This is when problems are happening.

Tension: This is the potential for problems to happen.

In a lot of ways, tension is actually more powerful than conflict, because the anticipation draws the audience in--the worry or fear that something might happen. Jumpy, scary movies are great at dishing out the tension. A character moves slowly through a dark area and the music and camera angles ramp up tension to the point that we are clawing into our seats or pulling our blankets up to our eyes.

It's entirely possible to have tension without conflict, and conflict without tension. For more on tension vs. conflict, check out my post on it.

Every once in a while, I run into a manuscript that is undercutting tension, accidentally. And sometimes that manuscript is even my own.

I sometimes feel like tension is one of the lifebloods of a powerful story. Without it, it's harder for the audience to get invested, it's harder for readers to turn the pages, it's harder for the story to be powerful. All good stories need some tension.

But sometimes as writers, we undercut the tension in our own story and zap it out of existence, on accident.

For example, we might have one character afraid that something bad is going to happen to them tomorrow, and this creates tension. What if something bad does happen tomorrow? But just after we build up the tension on the page, we have another character come in and explain why that bad thing won't ever happen tomorrow, and the first character believes it. The tension is suddenly gone.

In a passage, it might read something like this. (And this is just a quick, rough example to illustrate the point.)

Timmy rocked back and forth on his seat at the dinner table. Tomorrow was the first day of school, and he felt sure that Jacob, the schoolyard bully, would want to knock the living daylights out of him; Timmy had put a spider in Jacob's desk at the end of last year, and Jacob had found it just before the final bell. With the whole summer break, Jacob had to have figured out it was Timmy.

Jacob had fists like bricks, and Timmy could already imagine the mean, boar-like look Jacob got in his eyes whenever he was about to wallop someone. Timmy had hoped to register for the science fair this year, but after tomorrow, he'd be lucky if he could register for the next grade. He was doomed.

"You haven't touched any of your food." His mom had walked back into the kitchen to check on him. "Are you feeling alright?"

"Mom . . . what if Jacob beats me up tomorrow?" Timmy managed to ask.

"That won't happen," Mom said.

"Why not?"

"Because Jacob moved at the beginning of summer, remember? You never have to worry about him again."

Timmy immediately relaxed. That's right. Jacob had moved. How could he have forgotten? Timmy felt silly for having gotten all worked up over nothing.

He ate a spoonful of mashed potatoes.

This passage seems rather harmless, right? And certainly it would be fine in some stories. But imagine it was the only tension related to the first day of school--which is still pages and pages away. There is nothing else in the text that Timmy hopes or fears for, for the first day of school. So we don't really feel any tension, from now until then, so we don't really feel invested in reading about his first day. We cut off the tension too early. Even if Jacob did move, it may have been better for Timmy to not realize that until he was in recess--as long as there was something else to hope or fear about soon after that. We undercut the story's tension.

The tension was cut off too early.


Tension ends just before new tension.

Another way this is a problem, is if the writer does this sort of thing over and over again. Builds up tension, and then cuts it down to nothing, or nearly nothing, soon after. Eventually, whenever tension arises, the audience will subconsciously assume nothing significant will actually come of it . . . which will eventually result in them not even feeling the tension the writer is trying to put on the page.

Here the writer is undercutting tension over and over again. (And too early.)

Tension doesn't have to lead to conflict all the time, but it should lead to something significant much of the time. Otherwise it feels like "false tension"--just a trick the writer is using to try to make the audience afraid over nothing. And if it never leads to any conflict, then it's going to lose its impact.

Some people in the writing world believe that tension should always lead to conflict, but if you have that perspective, you really miss out on great tension opportunities, and juicy hooks.

Just because the tension doesn't always lead to a conflict doesn't mean you undercut it. The tension might lead to a surprising outcome, twist, or revelation. It might lead to a different, bigger conflict.

Sometimes the tension might lead to nothing substantial, but if that's the case, there must be other forms of tension also in play, or a new one that comes right after.

So imagine that Timmy is afraid of Jacob beating him up, clear until he arrives at the playground and realizes Jacob has moved. For a moment, he might be relieved . . . until he remembers that he was so nervous about Jacob, that he didn't pay attention to anything the teacher said, and, since he will now be living another day--even making it to the next grade--he's going to totally bomb his language arts homework, which his mom will not be happy about.

(This is the same as the second diagram, but I put it in twice for your convenience)

There, the tension carried us to the schoolyard where it ended, but we now have something new to worry about.

Other times, you might have multiple threads of tension to play with. Maybe in the text, Timmy wasn't only afraid of Jacob beating him up, but also worried about making a good first impression with the teacher, or that none of his friends will be in class, or that he will look stupid because he has to wear his old clothes, shoes, and use an old backpack. That gives us four threads of tension to work with, and if we don't cut any of them off prior, all four of them will pull us into his first day of school. But, if we do cut one of them ahead of time, say his mom reminding him Jacob moved, we still have three other threads of tension in play.

Four threads of tension in play

One thread cuts early, but we still have three threads to carry the story

I'll be honest, this is a concept that is kind of difficult to explain in a blog post (I hope the diagrams help), and it's definitely more advanced, but I'd rather take a stab at explaining it than not explain it at all, because if writers consistently unintentionally undercut tension, their story won't work, but most people won't be able to pinpoint or explain to them exactly why it doesn't work.

Story with lots of undercut tension

Cutting off tension is not always bad. That's why I used the word "accidentally" and "undercutting" in the headline. Remember diagram two? It's okay as long as other significant tension is present in the story, or we get to new tension soon. This is why I argue that not all tension needs to lead to something significant. When you embrace that idea, you can find all kinds of awesome tension that will have readers drooling to turn the next page. Besides, this happens in real life. How often do you worry about something that turns out to be nothing? I used to do this all the time. You just need to deliver on the tension a lot of the time.

But remember this important caveat: The more buildup you have of that tension thread, the more likely it needs to lead to something significant. It either needs to lead to the predicted conflict, or a different one that is just as strong or stronger than the predicted. At the very least, there has to be something much bigger and much more significant at its end. Otherwise, it will feel anticlimactic. And audiences rarely like that.

With all this talk of tension, you might feel like you need to have your characters worrying, fearing, and hoping all over the page all the time. It's possible to go overboard in the wrong kind of story. Not all tension needs to take center stage in a scene. For example, if the scene is super entertaining, you may not need a ton of tension (though in that case, I'd consider the concept of "tension" to function in a different way than the plot-focused definition I'm using for this post, but let's not get into that). You don't need to saturate the text all the time (unless of course, that's the kind of story you are telling).

The point is, you don't want to accidentally undercut the tension, weakening the story. And when you understand how that works, you will be less likely to do it.

Also, a lot of the tension needs to have significant stakes--that's why it creates tension. If it doesn't have significant stakes, we may not feel tension, unless we just feel for the character's wellbeing.

For example, you might have a child character who imagines getting sent to prison for lying to a teacher. Well, we all know that's not going to happen. So does it really carry tension? Well, if we care about and feel close to the child character, it may still carry some tension.

In some cases, just the fact the character feels a certain way or views things through a particular lens is enough. But you still need some significant stakes to make the story work. (Confused yet?)

Watch out for characterization too. I once wrote a viewpoint character that was very easygoing and optimistic. But almost every time I wrote a scene for him, he undercut the tension. In some stories, like stories with really epic stakes, you can still make that work, but for my story, it was ruining his scenes. So I had to tweak him.

And if you read this post and feel utterly confused, do not fret. It's pretty complicated to explain. And loads of writers write successful stories without thinking about any of these things. But, as I always say, it can be really helpful to be aware of.

Related Posts
Tension vs. Conflict (Hint: They aren't the Same Thing)
Look Forward, not Back, to Pull the Reader In
5 Tricks that Help with Hooks
How to Write Stakes in Storytelling
Reeling Readers in via Curiosity

Monday, October 28, 2019

Never Confuse Characterization for Character

Lately I've been revisiting Story by Robert McKee, a famous book on the craft of storytelling. It can be pretty intense and heavy at times, so it's not something I would recommend for beginners. In fact, the first time I read it, a lot of it was so deep and new that it went over my head. It's been interesting reading it again. Now, parts seem to be validating my ideas, rather than turning and twisting them.

One thing in particular stuck out to me this last week: character vs. characterization.

Regularly, I see writers hyperfocused on characterization.

Characterization is all the surface or near-surface stuff: voice, demeanor, likes and dislikes, hair and eye color, clothes, habits, etc.

Honestly, I personally consider these things to be part of character, but for the sake of this post, we are going to look at them as two different things, to communicate specific ideas.

Characterization can be really important and really effective. Give us the right voice, mannerisms, and appearance, and we can instantly be drawn to someone. Jack Sparrow is a good example. Johnny Depp combined Pepe le Pew with Keith Richards to come up with a unique, iconic characterization. In fact, Depp is often very good with characterization. A lot of actors have the same demeanor for all of their characters (I'm trying so hard to not name anyone in particular right now), but Depp's Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, Grindelwald, Mort Rainey, etc. all have unique characterizations.

You are very familiar with characterization. All over online you can find long questionnaires to fill out to get to know your protagonist (or any other character). Back in the day, I would fill these out because they were fun (and they are, and that's okay!), but I often found that despite how personal the questions could get (i.e. "What is his/her greatest fear?"), I wasn't quite satisfied with the person on the page, not to mention that a lot of the stuff I ended up brainstorming seemed irrelevant to the story. And in some cases, I had to change what I'd filled out to write a better story "for some reason."

I've actually heard/read a few writers get on the character vs. characterization bandwagon and go on to kind of . . . knock down characterization. I don't agree with that. I strongly believe in the power of rich characterization. And I have zero problems if you want to be like Johnny Depp and give each main character a super unique demeanor. In fact, as long as it doesn't get too outlandish for your world, I enjoy that and think it is a good idea.

After all, if Jack Sparrow had a demeanor like the Mad Hatter, Pirates would be totally different.

But here is the problem that past me, and I see a lot of writers run into, characterization is not the sum of character. You might be filling out questionnaire after questionnaire, trying to find The Thing™️, but it's not coming together, because you only know about characterization.

Characterization is part of a character, but it isn't fully "character." When it gets down to it, when you want to get really, really deep, characterization isn't going to get you there.

As J.K. Rowling famously wrote, it's our choices that determine who we are.

You can be the gothiest goth kid, or the preppiest prep kid, but who you truly are is what you choose to do, and perhaps, I would probably add, why you choose to do it. When encountering a stray dog, do you kick it away or give it some food? You can cut out all the external stuff; you can cut out the hairstyle, the age, the clothes, the likes and dislikes, and at the heart of it, is choices.

But it's not just any choice.

As Robert McKee and others have stated, to get into that inner gem of character, it's the choices the character makes when there are significant stakes. If a character chooses vanilla ice cream over chocolate, that doesn't really tell me a lot, unless I want to read symbolism into it (which could be there).

Maybe your protagonist tells the truth to his parents about putting a frog in his sister's bed. Does that really matter if there are no potential consequences involved? Telling the truth when there are no dire consequences is easy. Telling the truth when there are important things at stake is harder. What if telling the truth meant he would be grounded and could not participate in a talent show he's been practicing for, for months? There is prize money involved, and he was hoping to use that money to buy a chemistry set. Chemistry is his passion and he wants be a world-renowned chemist someday. Which is more important to him? A potential chemistry set or telling the truth?

This can be a great way to add depth. Well, it is depth. Especially if their characterization seems to be at odds with who they truly are. A vampire who craves human blood but chooses not to drink it is interesting. A prince who'd rather be a beach bum is interesting. The bully who, when it gets down to it, sticks up for an enemy is interesting. It makes them more complex. It draws us in so we want to know more. Why doesn't this vampire drink human blood? Why doesn't this prince want to be a king? Why did this bully stick up for someone? The answers to those questions makes them complex.

We all have layers after all. And we all have boundaries. I almost never lie. But if I was stuck between telling the truth or lying to save a loved one's life, well, I'd pick the latter. But if I picked the former, that would say a lot about me as well.

Some writers throw in contradictions to create character depth (a vampire who refuses to drink human blood), which works, but if it's a main character, and I never get an idea or hint of the "why," I sometimes find myself feeling . . . cheated. Like it was just thrown in (and maybe it was). I also then get stuck, fixated on the why that I never get, so it's distracting. I don't know that we always need to explore the why, but I would say for main characters, it's almost always more effective, more powerful, more meaningful, to address the why, to some extent. Unless, of course, the reason is ridiculous, in which case, maybe you need to reevaluate that and come up with something better.

There is an important part to all of this, which is that we need to see your character making significant choices, which means they must be placed in situations where they can make decisions. If you don't give your character opportunities to make significant decisions, it's probably going to be a problem. This is another reason why people ask for "active" protagonists. They must want something and make choices with stakes attached.

Don't be afraid to make your protagonist's true self a bit negative or flawed--after all, they need to grow during the story (usually). Maybe near the beginning of the story, you show your character being selfish, but at the end, we see he is willing to sacrifice his life, literally or figuratively. This is called character arc.

The way your character changes through the course of the story can also bring more "character" to him or her than characterization can alone. If we have a character that starts as a villain, but ends up being a good guy by the end, well, that's interesting and complex, and the transformation demands depth to be satisfying. This can all get more complicated real fast, because there are degrees and variations, and I don't want to muddy the water quite yet.

But if you are only trying to find character by filling out endless characterization questionnaires, you might never write a fully formed, deep, complex character. Instead, consider choices, contradictions, and arcs.

Monday, October 21, 2019

How to Develop Discernment and Wisdom

Last week I wrote about the importance of (repeated) failure, and while I have plenty to say about all that stuff, I thought I'd said enough on my blog. After some more thinking, though, I realized I wanted to do a follow-up on how, exactly that process works, on a micro level.

Remember, repeated failure paired with perseverance leads to a greater capacity for discernment, which is necessary to obtain wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to reconcile opposites. But "opposite" is an English word that leaves me wanting. Because they aren't always direct opposites, but rather, things that differ in some degree, like how pewter gray differs from steel gray. Both are gray, but they are still different. (Maybe wisdom is the ability to reconcile differences, but I'm not sure on that word either.) Anyway . . .

This is useful to writing, because the more you can discern and the more "writer wisdom" you have, the better you can write with precision. But really, this applies to almost everything in life. Every failure. And even things that aren't failures.

Like I said last time, often we are taught with black and white principles. That makes complete sense. We don't have the time nor energy to address all the grays, which are essentially infinite. There are infinite shades of grays just as there are an infinite amount of numbers between 0 and 1 (1.01, 1.1, 1.27 . . .).

But black and white principles are also important because we need them to get us introduced to the subject to begin with, to give us some guidance, some boundaries. We need them so we can be grounded in something, to start with. We don't teach a child to count by having them go from 1 to 1.000001 to 1.000002 . . . it's too much! Instead, we teach them the basics, give them the guideposts, and then later have them encounter the grays. (Surprise dear child, there is actually an infinite amount of numbers between 1 and 2!)

In reality, it's like this with almost everything. Most of the blacks and whites are man-made anyway, to help us have the capacity to perceive the world around us at all. And we are limited by the boundaries of our language, but . . . I do not want to get more confusing than necessary. 😆

So let's get to an example, so you know what the heck I'm talking about!

Say you are a child that has recently learned how to categorize animals (mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and arthropods).

You have been given (man-made (whoops, promised not to over complicate)) guidelines for how to discern what animal fits where.

You run into a snake. Easy, it has scales (and is cold-blooded)--clearly a reptile.

You run into a robin in a nest. Easy, it has feathers and a nest of eggs--clearly a bird.

You run into a cat. Easy, it has fur, drinks milk, and has live births--a mammal.

But then something weird happens.

You discover a platypus.

It's swimming in the water. It has a bill like a duck. A tail like a beaver. Fur like an otter. Webbed feet like an amphibian. Lays eggs like a reptile. And feeds its babies with milk (but doesn't have nipples?).

It doesn't seem to fit the principles you've been taught!

In other words, it doesn't fit the black and white guidelines. It's a "gray."

Naturally, as you try to make sense of this, and study the platypus, hoping to categorize it, a few things will happen.

First will probably be confusion.

Holding on to what you've been taught (after all, those are the rules for animals), you may try, unsuccessfully, to make sense of it by putting it into one of the categories.

Well, it feeds its babies with milk, so it must be a mammal.

But that doesn't work.

You were taught that mammals don't lay eggs.

But birds, reptiles, and fish don't have fur.

As you try again and again to unsuccessfully categorize it, you naturally invite in feelings of frustration and disappointment. I mean, who wouldn't be frustrated trying to categorize a platypus when you have been given strict guidelines?

Now, remember, this is a simplistic example/metaphor. Stay with me.

As you keep trying and failing to categorize this animal, a few things happen.

1 - Either you come to the conclusion that you are the problem, that you are doing something wrong (and therefore must be stupid) . . .

or . . .

2 - What you have been taught is wrong.

If you take route one, you may start to internalize failure. You might get stuck in a depressing loop, thinking you did something wrong.

If you take route two, you may bring into question everything you've been taught to be true. "These categories can't be right!" you say. "This creature doesn't fit into any of them! And these are all the categories there are!! I've been taught wrong all this time!" 😡

People in the first category have the tendency to quit.

People in the second category have the tendency to jump ship too early.

People in the first category may feel depressed, insecure, and sad.

People in the second category may feel angry, wronged, or cheated.

But in reality, a lot of times, neither of those routes are actually accurate.

It's a platypus. It has nothing to do with you being stupid. It has nothing to do with you being taught "wrong." It's a gray creature.

Just because you can't get it to fit in with everything else doesn't mean you are doing something wrong.

And just because you can't get it to fit in with what your teacher taught doesn't mean they are wrong.

It's not necessarily wrong to teach a child to count from 1 to 2 to 3. It's just that real life is much more complex than that. Some mammals lay eggs. Some reptiles have feathers. Some fish have live births. You can try to cling to the black and white all you want, but that's just the way reality is.

Sometimes there are platypuses, and dinosaurs, and molly fish, and steel gray and pewter gray.

So you have to look at the third route, which is that, this platypus is a gray. It doesn't actually fit the generalizations of any of the categories, but as you study it, you begin to discern more detailed things about it, and you are able to reconcile the oppositions it embodies. "Okay, well," you say, "maybe a mammal can lay eggs, even if that's unusual."

I admit, that even classifying a platypus as a mammal still seems questionable to me, as they actually do have significant similarities to birds and reptiles--but like I said at the beginning, the categories are all man-made anyway. They only exist to help us perceive the world. In other words, to help us discern. Even the basic categories (mammal, reptile, fish, etc.) are only there to help us discern the difference in animals in general. But someone somewhere decided that a platypus fit best as a mammal, but in order to get it to fit, they had to be more specific, by calling it a "monotreme mammal," which means, we now have the power to discern in even more detail.

But lots of people, loyal to the black and white beginner principles of the world, want to deny that 1.000001 exists, that pewter gray exists, that platypuses exist--figuratively speaking of course.

In fact, I think all of us probably do this to some degree.

See, in order to see those things, to gain more discernment and wisdom, we have to be willing to look at opposition--things that oppose (to some degree) our own thoughts and perceptions, maybe even personal beliefs.

Because if I'm dead set that the "Show, don't Tell" writing rule is always right, and I run into a book that uses telling very good, I'm going to have a problem--there's conflict. It is in opposition to my beliefs.

Now, like I mentioned last time, some of us would actually rather be blind to the grays and platypuses, because we are too loyal to the blacks and whites. We refuse to see them. In fact, we may refuse to believe that such opposition even exists. We'd rather live in a state of ignorance and innocence, in our own figurative Eden.

Sometimes, we are afraid of seeing the 1.000001, because that means we have to change our perspective, that 2 always comes directly after 1.

It also means that we aren't getting the self assurance, the validation, that our initial beliefs and understandings are right. We may have to face . . . opposing concepts. 

In fact, sometimes acknowledging gray exists may even be painful . . . or ugly.

But not always.

Opposition creates confusion, which can lead to disappointment and frustration, which can potentially lead to low self esteem or us questioning the correctness of the beliefs we use to govern our lives. These are feelings much of us try to avoid.

But in reality, complexity happens when opposition collides. How can a platypus lay eggs, give milk, and have a duck bill? The space between those seeming contradictions, the answers that justify that existence, is exactly what creates complexity. As a result, we have to become more discerning and precise. We have to figure out how to reconcile the opposites. The result is where wisdom lies.

Ironically, we seem to live in a world that wants to move away from opposition--but considering the seemingly negative emotions involved otherwise, it shouldn't be too surprising. The world would have you surround yourself with only like-minded people, teachings, and ideas, which can stunt growth. If everything were always black and white, you'd never learn to discern, you'd never learn wisdom, you'd never learn to judge accurately.

But, on the other hand, when you do see grays, you need to make sure you don't always internalize them as personal failures or abandon all your previously established truths.

Instead, slow down, study, and discern. Work to reconcile the differences. Refine specificity.

This is what it means to be wise.


Don't worry, next week I'll be back with a regular writing tip :)

Monday, October 14, 2019

Exactly Why Failure is Key to Exceptional Success

Over the last few years, I've heard a lot of people talking about how important failure is in our lives, and yet, I feel like no one has adequately explained *exactly* WHY and *exactly* HOW that works. More and more I've been gaining a greater understanding of failure, and today, I'll attempt to share what I've learned. Will I succeed? You be the judge. 😉

But before I get too far, I want to take a moment to acknowledge two different ways the term "failure" is used, because that affects the meaning of this post.

Some people use "failure" to mean giving up, the final quit. In this sense, the phrase, "You only fail if you quit" is true (I've said that same phrase on my blog).

Other people use "failure" to mean any kind of mess up, mistake, or error.

A lot of us use it both ways, which can make a conversation about it confusing.

While in the past, I've usually meant the first definition, today I'm using it as the second definition: mess up, mistake, error.

There are so many interconnected parts of failure's purpose in life, that it's hard to know where to start, but I will begin with the familiar and build up to the most profound and important.

(Why) Failing Sucks

This is definitely the most familiar. We've all failed, and we've all known what that feels like.

No one genuinely enjoys failure. It's not fun. And it can make you feel stupid.

The more failures you accumulate, one after another, the more frustrated and disappointed you will become.

To be honest, I've been dealing with this a lot lately.

You see, I have a few specific scenes left to fix in my manuscript, and I can't for the life of me figure them out. I literally worked on it diligently for over a month. And while I made some headway, it wasn't much, and I'm largely just as stuck.

So, I've been accumulating lots of failures. And naturally I've been dealing with regular feelings of frustration, disappointment, and even depression. Heck, I've even gotten to the point of asking existential questions.

But guess what? Any normal person in this same situation would feel those same feelings. I mean, seriously? Over a month? For me that means I've spent about 80 hours on it. Who wouldn't be frustrated? Disappointed? Depressed? Questioning life choices?

This is completely normal. And contrary to how you feel, it's not actually a bad thing. Sure, your emotions are a part of you and your existence, but you need to learn to rise above them, not be ruled by them.

Recently I read this in an article:

What feels like struggle and frustration is often skill development and growth. . . . In other words, what looks like failure is often the foundation of success.

I've heard others talk about how feelings of confusion are actually simply signals to your brain that you are about to learn something new.

These emotions may feel negative to your well-being at the time, but they actually aren't bad, and they definitely aren't evil.

They simply mean you are entering a skill development phase. This is completely true, and in the process of this post, you'll see why, specifically.

Now, some of you may have actually been embarrassed for me when I said I've spent 80 hours trying to fix a few scenes; maybe you even thought you were better than that. Maybe you are 🤷‍♀️ but this is also another reason why failing sucks. Not only do you naturally deal with feelings of frustration, disappointment, maybe existential questions, but you have to deal with others, our culture, and society, which has often taught us failure is something to be ashamed and embarrassed about, in other words, it's not accepted. In other words, we have even another reason to avoid it.

To be fair, it's almost impossible in our classrooms and society to adequately incorporate failure, for reasons I'll explain later. It just doesn't work--it's not realistic.

Why Exactly Perseverance is so Important

Because failing, especially repeated failing, naturally invites feelings of frustration, disappointment, and depression, along with ridicule, shame, and embarrassment, it requires something else to carry you over to those new skills: perseverance.

It's such a cliche, that you might want to skip ahead, but trust me, you don't.

Like we said, failing is not fun. But often failing means you have the opportunity to learn a new skill. But you can only learn that new skill if you keep going. We've all been taught this.

But there is something else to be gained: experience.

The first time you run into a specific failure and choose to push on to success, your experience is like this line, small and thin. I kind of think of it as a little indentation in a trail you took.

Yes, Paint has been useful for my blog again! Notice the thin line.

The next time you do that, your experience is like this line. It's a little deeper, a little stronger, in the trail.

The next time you do that, your experience is like this line.

The next time you do that, your experience is like this line. Bolder, clearer, stronger, like a deep rut in the path.

This line is more obvious/clearer. It's "stronger."

All of our choices and experiences accumulate within us. Every time we choose to persevere to success, the clearer our path becomes next time, even if the subject matter is different.


Because every time we persevere and make it through a hard time, it becomes a little easier to make it through the next hard time. Because we've already done hard things, we can do more hard things (we can take the rut in the trail). We know we can. And even if this situation is something harder, our past experience informs us we are capable of figuring it out. It all accumulates and becomes clearer.

This in turn relates directly to growing in confidence. A lot of teens and young adults struggle with confidence. Why? Well, one part is because they have not yet accumulated enough experience to perceive the clear path. How are you supposed to be confident in which way to go, if you've never gone that way before? It might seem like a fool's confidence to pretend you know. This is where the concept of faith comes in. You need to exercise faith the first few times, but once you accumulate experiences, the paths and consequences become clearer. You don't need to "try" to be confident. You will be, because you know.

Each experience builds.

Sure, prior to that, you may need to get help and direction, from tools or people who already know the way. You exercise faith by trying it out, getting results, and evaluating that experience. As that accumulates, eventually you will be confident and know.

Unfortunately, though, this sort of thing also happens in the reverse. . . .

Imagine you have the choice whether or not to persevere.

And you quit.

First path of quitting

And the next time you quit.

And the next time you quit.

And the next time you quit.

Quitting becomes the more obvious path to take. It's a "stronger" path because you've taken it so many times.

You've now accumulated a bunch of quitting experiences, making it even harder to take those first few journeys of faith. Why? Because all you've ever done is quit. Worse, because that is what you've always ever done, you may just assume you are doomed to do that to yourself again.

There is hope.

And do you want to know a secret?

I think the first few leaps of faith almost always suck, regardless of past experiences. Because you don't yet know. Leaps of faith are scary! They've made me restless for nights on end, made me want to throw up my breakfast, made me have existential questions. But to this day, I will tell you that none of them have been as hard as the first significant one I took, exactly because it was the first one I took. (I won't go into the story because it's long and personal.) I realize that might sound depressing for a few people, but think of it this way--all the other leaps will likely be easier because you already did it once!

And sometimes, it's helpful to not put the faith in yourself; after all, you don't yet have the accumulated experience to give you the knowledge that paves the way to confidence. It might be easier to imagine putting your faith in God, the universe, "Truth," a mentor, or someone more experienced than you (for me it's God, but not everyone shares my beliefs). Trust them, and then leap. Then see what happens and evaluate.

I realize like with everything, there are exceptions. There always are, especially when you talk about abstract concepts like, faith, perseverance, and failure. Since they aren't concrete things, we have to use generalization to even create the concept in the first place (though some would argue we do that with all words of language, but let's leave that for the college classrooms today).

Perseverance is important, because without it, you'll never get the skills needed to find exceptional success.

Sure, you can get some success without failure and perseverance, but you'll never get exceptional success.

One Difference Between Consistent Quitters and Exceptional Success . . . ors

In my current journey of regular failures and bouts of frustration and disappointment, et. al, I've been listening to a lot of speeches about failure when I get ready in the mornings. In fact, I've listened to some speakers talk about studies that have even been done on consistent quitters and consistently successful people. One key thing really stuck out to me.

Observers have noticed that consistent quitters internalize failure.

Consistently successful people, don't.

There is a typical process that goes on when you are trying to do something difficult.

1. You start working on something
2. It gets hard
3. You can't figure it out
4. You try and fail and try and fail
5. Because you fail so much, you beat yourself up, and decide you suck.
6. You keep trying (or quit).

People who are consistently successful, skip step five. Because they don't internalize the failure--they don't make it about them being no good, but only the problem itself being very difficult--they don't quit, and they find more success.

This is way easier said than done.

Years and years ago, I was always a number five stepper. ALWAYS. And you know what? It was the worst! Sometimes I'd even crawl in my bed when I got home and cry. (It didn't stop me, apparently, cause I'm still here--so even if you are a five stepper, you can keep going!) I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I could do everything I wanted to--without feeling that way. I just thought it was a normal part of my process.

Now, I admit I would be embarrassed if certain people I knew read that, but I want to include it because I believe there are people out there struggling with the same thing, and I want them to know it's possible for it to go away.

I'm not a therapist or a doctor. But as I kept forcing myself to persevere over and over again, something weird happened.

I accumulated experience.

Which meant I accumulated confidence.

At some point, I stopped internalizing failures without really realizing it, because I knew I could overcome the problem--because I did it over and over and over again. I could do hard things.

I'm not saying thoughts never cross my mind that could affect my self-esteem--they do, to everyone. No one is immune to passing thoughts. It's a natural thought process of failure. Of course I'm going to question things, because I'm disappointed and not figuring things out, and I'm trying to figure them out, troubleshoot, evaluate, why it's not working (is it me???). But because I have accumulated experience, it doesn't take root.

The Keys to Exceptional Success: Unparalleled Discernment and Precision

But even with all this, failure has a purpose that in some ways is far more important than anything we've talked about. And this is a process that I think most people don't adequately explain.

They may say things like, "You learn more from failure," but they don't clearly explain how or why; they just brush the surface.

For the last two years, I've been thinking a lot about discernment, and what it is, how we develop it, and why it's so important.

Guess what?

This relates directly to failure. In fact, accumulating failure can give you unparalleled discernment and precision, which is exactly why you will have the potential to become exceptionally successful.

In classrooms and in textbooks, we tend to talk in "black and white" terms. Either something is right, or something is wrong. You either solved that problem correctly, or you didn't. Sometimes this even goes into religion. You either kept that commandment, or you didn't.

But the real world is way more complicated than that. Some people want to believe it's still black and white, but it's not. I don't care how vehemently you preach that to me, reality and experience has taught me life is way more complicated and complex than that.

This is where life experience comes in. You've probably all heard the idea that you can study about a subject all day for years, but until you accumulate life experience, you won't be able to do whatever you are trying to do, as successfully. This is because the subject, like almost everything, has a whole entire spectrum of grays--not just black and white.

It would be impossible to teach and cover all those grays in a classroom, textbook, or sermon--the grays, in some ways, are infinite. And if we did try to teach all those grays and exceptions and such, not only would it take up waaaay more time, but it would muddy and take away from the main successful routes, the white over the black, the basics we are trying to teach.

But let's get deeper.

Gray isn't one color. It's a type of color.

So maybe you are introduced to black and white. But in the real world, you run into gray. And you don't know how to interpret or approach it. It doesn't fit in exactly with what you were taught.

Discern the gray

As you deal with that, you learn to discern that gray exists.

But guess what? Gray is a type of color.

So you go along in life, and then you run into a different gray. Now not only do you discern gray from black and white, but you need to learn to discern how this gray is different than the last. What kind of gray is it? To what degree is it black? To what degree it is white? Does it have other colors mixed in?

And as time goes on, you encounter another gray.

And another.

And another.

And eventually . . .

even if the shades are almost exactly the same . . .

you can discern almost imperceptible differences.

This is the same sort of process that happens when you accumulate failures (though obviously I'm using a metaphor to make it more accessible), as long as you persevere until you succeed in each one.

In other words, you develop a level of discernment that was totally inaccessible without those encounters, because you can't know them, until you accumulate the experience of them. And as you accumulate the experience of them, you more easily discern them. (I know I just talked in circles, but hopefully you get it).

You can identify steel gray from pewter gray.

But identifying is only half of it.

Because you persevered to success over and over again, you know how to handle the pewter gray when you see it again.

In other words, you develop an exceptional level of precision, that anyone who has given up repeatedly, can only dream of. (Seriously.)

As you encounter pewter gray and address it over

and over

and over


The path becomes clearer.

But if you never have the experience of having to learn how to discern and address it (in the point of this post, aka, fail and overcome it), you'll never fully know it, to the same extent, of that specificity.

As your exact discerning and understanding of the specific thing grows, so does your wisdom concerning it.

What is the difference between having general "knowledge" and having "wisdom"? It is discernment. General knowledge is just learned information. But wisdom has a level of discernment. And it doesn't stop there. Real wisdom is discerning how to apply knowledge the right way to the right situation. Wisdom comes from learning to recognize and reconcile opposites.

Okay, hold your horses there, because I just used the word "opposites." The truth is, I want to use a different word, but haven't found the right one that fits yet. When I say "opposite" I don't necessarily mean direct opposites (black vs. white), but some degree of opposition, some degree of difference, i.e. pewter gray vs. steel gray. It's recognizing that and knowing the precise way to address it.

Satan wasn't kidding when he told Eve that if she partook of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil (opposites), she'd have the "wisdom of God." But people don't understand the significance of that idea, because they only think of direct opposites, the black and white, not all the grays that exist in between, (i.e. "Is it evil to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?"). I do not believe we are meant to go through life with our "color-blinders" on, only perceiving and labeling everything as black or white. We can never become something more until we discern the other shades.

What's weird is that until we can discern, we cannot accurately judge. Which adds a whole layer to the idea of not judging (in the "condemning" definition) others. The idea that we even have the level of discernment, the capacity to decide who goes to Heaven or Hell is laughable, because it implies we believe we have obtained the same capacity of discernment, of wisdom, as God. (ROFL!) But this is a tricky concept to talk about, because the word "judge" has multiple definitions. "Judge" can be used to mean something like "discern," but it's also used to mean something like "condemn" or like, "sentence." We should really only be concerned with the first one most the time (unless we are law enforcement or something). This is also why it's possible to "hate the sin, love the sinner," so to speak.

Anyway! (A slight tangent that I felt was worth mentioning.)

Repeated failure and accumulated experience (of persevering) literally enhances and broadens our capacity for discernment in ways that cannot be obtained otherwise, which means we can literally perceive things others cannot, which means, we can develop an exact level of precision that others cannot. Which means, we can actually get closer to a state of perfection, in whatever we are pursuing, that others cannot. Which means we have the potential to succeed in exceptional ways, usually way beyond that of those who don't fail.

Sure, there are naturally gifted people, who fail less, but they are rare. Most highly successful people are ordinary people who have failed a ton. And unless naturally gifted people work for it, they may never reach the same level of discernment and wisdom.

This is why you hear people say things about "experience." "I'm looking for someone with experience." What they are really saying is that they are looking for someone with discernment, with wisdom. But here's the funny thing. Just because someone has been around longer, doesn't necessarily mean they are more discerning, wise. Because if they never risk failure, choose to see the shades of gray, persevere to success, they may never develop the same level of discernment as someone much younger who does that all the time. Maybe this is why some young people "have old souls."

Since I became an adult, I've been amazed at how easily others will quit the simplest things.  Someone will ask me how I styled my hair a certain way, I'll tell them what to do, they fail, and they say things like, "I'm just not good at that. I tried it and it didn't work" (internalized failure). I try to explain I sucked at the hairstyle my first time too--in fact, maybe the first ten times. But here's the thing. They didn't see how bad my hair looked those ten days. They only saw the results.

I realize that not all of us want to succeed at everything badly. And in fact, it's unrealistic to put 100% effort into everything we choose to pursue. We may have different priorities, run into new interests, decide it's not what we thought it was, and move on. That is 100% okay.

On the other hand, part of me wonders, if that person quit at trying a hairstyle after their first attempt--what else is that behavior affecting in their lives? After all, most things you don't get right the first time! Then again, maybe they just decided they weren't that interested . . . which weirdly gets back to discernment--I don't have all the factors to judge for sure, and it's very important we learn to discern ourselves and our own motives, honestly.

Still, I think a lot of people probably give up too quickly, mainly because of my earlier point: failure isn't fun. It can hurt and even be humiliating. And the growing process of learning discernment and a new skill is difficult and uncomfortable (but so, so worth it). If you look at what I've outlined in this section, it's clearly a refining process.

As I've been working at solving the scenes I'm stuck on, it does feel like refinement in a lot of ways.

At first I set out with some ideas on how to fix the scenes.

But one way failed.

Then another.

Then another.

Then another.

And another.

But in the process of my attempts, I'm slowly stripping away what does not work, getting closer to the solution. And refining my discernment and precision, in ways I haven't before. So I'm gaining wisdom.

What's crazy . . .

. . . is the more you do this . . .

. . . the more exceptional you can become . . .

. . . and the more exceptional you can become . . .

. . . the more you can stand out . . .

. . . so you'll be unparalleled in your realm.

We all think competition is fierce--and it can be. (And there are always some elements out of our control.)

But imagine being so exceptional, that few people are even in your level, or in that category. In a sense, there is actually less competition where you stand. After all, frankly, most people will quit before they get to that level. Maybe it's because they internalize failure. Maybe it's because they don't slow down, identify, and overcome the problem, but instead just keep starting over and over and over again. Maybe it's because they choose not to see gray. Maybe it's because failing so many times invites feelings of frustration and disappointment (though weirdly, the more often you experience that point, the more clearly you can see how to deal with those feelings and that they will eventually pass). Or, maybe they decide they aren't that interested in it. It is a personal choice after all, and who am I to judge (condemn)? I'm still trying to learn to judged (discern), myself.

All I'm saying is that overcoming repeated failure is a refining process that enhances our discernment and precision in ways that are unparalleled. As long as you are learning (and applying what you learn), you are succeeding, to say the cliche. Or in other words, "You only fail if you quit" (I love playing with the ambiguity of English words). I've heard these cliches . . . but now I know them (or perhaps more appropriately, discern them).

Often those who have had exceptional success, the masters, have failed a million times, whether that is Edison or Mozart. In an article I recently read, someone called it the "10 Years of Silence," noticing that many music masters didn't have any exceptional success for ten years (where they were failing behind the scenes). It's precisely this refinement and perseverance that enabled them to become masters at all.

Now, everyone remembers them for their successes, not their failures.


I realize this is a post that is different than what I have been writing lately, but I feel that understanding the purpose of failure is critical to success, especially in writing, where we are literally working with black marks on a page. Learning to discern accurately is critical--it's why we have writing groups, writing conferences, teachers, and editors. 

I also realize it is a little rambly, but it's a pretty abstract topic, and when I thought of cutting out certain points, I thought that those points may resonate with a particular person. So you'll have to forgive me (this is just an informal blog post after all, and I wanted to get it up today). Hopefully, though, at least one thing in here was helpful to you!