“Failing is not the end of growth”
Thought Bananas 23
"Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you're doomed."
I’m beginning the year with a rather meta ‘essay about writing.’ We’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming next week.
To Write is to Grow
I recently discovered that an early essay I wrote is not very good, which is the best news I could have received as we begin the new year.
When I wrote "Don't Believe Me? Look it up", I was trying to cultivate a new voice and do something different. I got helpful feedback that it was good but, “didn't quite work.” They meant that the idea was good, but the essay as it was didn’t get that idea across. I didn't take that feedback to heart. Instead, I revised the essay endlessly and published it on my Substack. It didn't resonate with readers.
Hundreds of people opened the email but none of them commented. I was disappointed. I wanted to write interesting deep dives on cool topics, argumentative essays on weighty ideas, and fun mind-bending essays that “thrill rides” to read. But after having pushed myself and fallen short, I feared that my ability to range outside personal stories and fiction had peaked and I was limited as a writer.
Nine months have passed since then. I've consumed lots of advice on writing, written and edited over forty of my own essay and stories, read better writing more closely than before, and even taught writing as a mentor for Write of Passage. Yet, I hadn't updated that essay in my mental landscape of my writing. Instead of revisiting it, I just assumed that it was still a “No Trespassing” sign, marking the edge of my abilities and keeping me away from writing essays like it again.
That changed yesterday, when I re-read it on a whim. I was shocked at how different my perspective was. Before it was released, I had imagined going back and marveling at how good it was, wondering how I could have connected those disparate ideas and fashioned such clever turns of phrase, like modern engineers visiting the pyramids. But now I see it meanders in a confusing way, is only a little clever at the cost of being very confusing, and has clunky sentences that break up the flow.
In the gap between my expectations for this essay and the reality are three lessons. First, I needed to calibrate better and know how to work with people’s feedback. I needed to learn to separate people’s feedback on my written ideas and my writing. I have since worked with many amazing writers and improved handily at this.
Second, failure is only a terminal state if you stop trying and improving. At the time I worried that the essay had effectively marked the edge of my writing range. After working so hard on writing and editing over the last nine months, I realize now that trying new things and failing is not the end of growth; failing is the most essential part of growing.
Finally, I learned that writing publicly is a record of your growth. I really pushed myself to write that essay but it fell short of what I was hoping for. I learned a lot in writing it. Had I not written and published it, I would not have found it this week and realized how much further I had come.
When I wrote the original essay and it fell flat, I was worried I had reached the top of my game. When I read it now, I can see things right away that I would drastically change if it were a new draft. I’ve learned that the key is to not pin my hopes, self-image, and understanding of my abilities as a writer on any one given piece, but to embrace writing as a journey of self-discovery and self-development.
To write is to grow.
There is a tradition called an Annual Review that is popular among the large community of creators, writers, and entrepreneurs who are the minor celebrities and loudest voices on the internet. It is an appraisal of the past year and planning for the next year put in writing (or recorded on video) and shared with the public.
I wrote one this year that you can find here: Dream Big and Show Up (Annual Review 2022).
To arrive at that annual review format, I did a lot of research and thinking. I compiled a list of my favorite Annual Reviews from other people and made copious notes on each. I separated my competing motivations for writing the annual review, and started listing pros and cons. This evolved into me personifying each motivation and writing a dialogue that turned into something resembling a one-act play, where I have a conversation with myself to figure out what to include in my Annual Review. This will be coming out next week.
Thoughts and Threads
For the first post of the year, I wanted to share some of my favorite YouTube videos that have to do with beginnings and endings.
An Invocation for Beginnings
This is one of my favorite videos on YouTube. It’s a weird mashup of a video essay and spoken word poetry from ten years ago by YouTuber Ze Frank. It is hard to pin down exactly what he is talking about, but that’s part of the fun. He is using words and video effects to create a mood that then teaches the lesson, rather than just coming right out with it.
"What It's All About" - A Memorial Tribute To The Beautiful Life of Josh Neuman
Last year, YouTuber and extreme sports athlete Josh Neuman died in a tragic helicopter accident. Unfortunately, I found him through this tribute video, but I have loved going back through his videos since then. I find this video sad, touching, and inspirational. I’ll never be an extreme athlete, but this video makes me want to seize every day and make an adventure of life.
Crowd Work is back!
In standup comedy, crowd work is when the comic speaks directly with the audience. I want to hear from you! Heckles and cheers go here.
Do you have an annual review routine?
Do you look ahead to the next year?
“Writing publicly is a record of your growth.”
Love the example of how you looked back on a piece and felt differently based on how much you’ve grown as a writer. I had a similar moment of shock and awe recently discovering a thread I thought was good a few months back and now realize is super confusing and also monotonous.
Here’s to our public records keeping us cognizant!
Wow I figured you had been writing for way longer. This gives me hope for my future writing!