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Tracey S. Phillips Asks How Do You Face Failure?

Tracey S. Phillips is the author of thriller Best Kept Secrets, and the founder of Blackbird Writers. You can find out more about her here, see her book here, and read her last post here.

I’m proud to tell you that I’m a failure. Because on the other side of failure, is success. I wasn’t always proud to say it because I didn’t set out to fail.

As school children we learned how to read and write while teachers and parents said, “Reach for the stars.” What they never told us was there would be many failures along the way. And from those nonstarters, losses, and setbacks, you will learn.

From a very young age, many children are taught to set their sights on a future with questions like, What do you want to be when you grow up? Admirable choices abounded: firefighter, nurse, or doctor. A mother or father. A builder or mechanic. No one suggested starving artist or struggling novelist. I wonder why?

My parents were not the goal oriented types to pressure me into a career. They were hippies and only wanted me to be happy. So I chose a path that –looking back on it—set me up for failure from the starting line. I attended Berklee College of Music. A college that accepts no credits from any other college or university. A college for jazz and modern music. (Whoops. I grew up playing classical piano and never once had I improvised or jammed with other musicians.) Berklee College in Boston, in a city so unlike my midwestern roots made me long for a tree to climb or a blade of grass to whistle between my thumbs.

I attended three of four years then went home, intoxicated, and sickened by my failure. And yet, I learned more about myself in those three years than I would have if I’d attended a regular university. I learned that I love to create things of beauty, whether it’s with words, music, or something tangible. And I learned how to fail.

Many years later, I drew on that experience to strengthen my resolve as I dove into a new career. I wished to publish a book I’d written and set about learning how. I learned about agents and publishers, traditional and independent publishing. And the deeper I dove, the more I failed. I sent queries that failed to get noticed. I pitched to agents who said definitively, “No.” I rewrote and revised that book more than twenty times. It—and I—failed. Unwilling to give up, I saved the file and archived it.

Swivel, tilt, and spin.

What I learned is, failure isn’t about losing. It’s about what you do when you fall. Sure, you may cry a little, or even a lot. You may drink a bottle to drown your sorrows, and you may throw that manuscript, method, or project in the garbage pail. All viable options.

But by all means, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and keep working on your craft.

Here’s what not to do: stop trying.

When I was growing up, my family spent summers at a lake house owned by my grandmother. We swam in the water, boated, and learned how to water ski at a very young age. My mom and dad both skied. All the aunts and uncles skied. As if it was in the family genes, we were expected to carry on this family trait. When I was eleven, it became time to learn to slalom on a single ski.

In my family, there was only one way to accomplish this daunting feat. Get up on two skis, signal the boat driver, then while speeding across the surface on two narrow planks, drop one ski. Try to stay balanced while the spray from the speeding boat knocks your bare foot around. Now, slip your foot into the back bootie of the slalom ski.

Right.

My generation had four new learners. I was among the eldest, so the younger boys went first. Both dropped skis and stood on one in under five attempts. My turn.

I dropped a ski and fell. Dropped a ski and fell. I’d seen the adults slalom ski and none of them ever dropped a ski. They all pulled up from the water or dock-side. “Let me try it that way,” I said. Not a chance. Eleven-year-olds don’t make the rules. They dragged me behind the boat, cheered me on, and I fell again. And after so many attempts that my whole body ached from hitting the water, I was in tears.

“One more chance. Please,” I cried. “I want to start with both feet in the slalom ski.”

“Impossible.”

“No one in the history of learners has done it this way.”

“We’ll give you one chance.” The adults finally conceded.

I skied the length of the lake on that one ski.

What I learned? When something isn’t working, pivot. Dip. Dab. Try something new.

I revel in my process now. Looking at failure as a steppingstone helps me to keep moving forward. Aware of my process, I now notice signs of struggle and learn new ways to pirouette around a perceived collapse. It means I’m still moving forward.

That manuscript that no one wanted remained on the metaphorical shelf while I wrote another mystery. I took a new direction. And with the shift came success. Crooked Lane Books saw my twitter pitch and published Best Kept Secrets. That book is still receiving four and five star reviews.

Still wondering about that first manuscript? After twenty seven revisions, two developmental editors and three copy edits, I independently published it under my pseudonym, Karissa Knight. You can find five-star-rated THE CLIENT on Amazon.

 How do you face failure?

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Tracey S. Phillips

Tracey S. Phillips is the founder of Blackbird Writers and the author of Best Kept Secret. You can find out more about her on her website, www.traceysphillips.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan

    Tracey — Start with both feet in the slalom ski? Damn straight!

  2. marilynlevinson

    Tracey, Thank you for this wonderful heart-felt post. We writers have been forced to deal with failure and have learned how to forge ahead.

    1. Tracey Phillips

      Thanks Marilyn. I’ve been reading more about how to change the internal “tapes”. I think it’s an important thing for writers (and artists) to look at.

  3. Jacqueline Vick

    Fabulous post. The best thing parents can do is teach kids how to fail because there will be a lot of failure on the way to success. We now call it “iterations”. 🙂

  4. Tracey Phillips

    I’m learning so much about new parenting techniques! Love it. Parents have so much more at their disposal than we did in the nineties. Not to mention back in the day when we grew up–not to date myself–LOL!

  5. Sheila Lowe

    Sounds like you taught the grownups about success! Well done 🙂

    1. Tracey Phillips

      Thanks Sheila! They would say I taught them about all kinds of things.

  6. Love this post, Tracey! I faced years of No during my pre-published phase. Back in the days of mailing out queries with a SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope) I even got my own query letter back with NO scrawled across it. Loved your words of advice for forging through until you get the job done!

  7. Tracey Phillips

    Thank you Margaret. Writers truly face rejection throughout their careers. When a series gets canceled, when their publisher drops them or to pitch that next book. We need the armor to forge ahead, as you say. And If we don’t have it, we surely develop it!

  8. Avanti Centrae

    Thanks for the inspirational post, Tracey. I too recall learning to water ski…and my writing journey has also been fraught with a fair share of rejections. My momma always said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” That motto has served me well.

  9. Christine DeSmet

    Great post. I have several manuscripts that were good to learn from, and several old stories and old poems. I dug one short story manuscript out the other day and rewrote it and sent it to a contest. I felt like a beginner all over again and loved the exhilarating feeling! But I’ll never water ski. I love looking at water and can swim, but NO skiing. Never. Ever. Good for you for being brave and doing it! Brava, brava!

  10. Tracey Phillips

    Thanks Christine, I might be at an age where I don’t ski anymore either. Loved it when I was younger! But I don’t have many opportunities now. Not enough to keep me in shape for it. I’ll practice writing instead. Besides, I’m getting ready to pitch that next book!

  11. I still don’t handle failure well, but I still keep trying. Sigh. Thanks for a really good post on a seriously uncomfortable topic.

    1. Tracey Phillips

      Thanks Anne, it’s taken a lifetime for me to come to terms with it as well.

  12. saralynrichard

    I love the way you’ve embraced failure as a necessary means to personal and professional growth. After reading THE CLIENT, I can hardly believe that something that good came out of numerous rejections. Your experiences are an inspiration to all of us, because there is no sure-footed path to success.

    1. Tracey Phillips

      Thank you Saralyn for reading The Client and for your kind words. Failure has such a negative connotation and really should be seen as a stepping stone. I wish I knew them what I know now.

  13. Sharon Lynn

    What an inspiring message, Tracey! No one wants to admit a failure but you’re 100% correct! So much is learned from those moments.

  14. Tracey Phillips

    Thanks Sharon! Embrace it as part of the process. A feather in your cap.

  15. Sherrill Joseph

    Thanks, Tracey, for having a long-running streak of courage! I, too, faced many query rejections that stung until I learned to develop a tough skin for self-preservation and to face failure objectively. Like you, I believe failure.can inspire us to push ahead and find success. It’s all about one’s frame of mind. As to teachers’ roles in helping kids deal with failure, I used to ask students what their Plan B would be and to always have one.

  16. Tracey Phillips

    Sherrill, Thanks for your kind comments. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! That’s a great lesson for any creative task. Keep those wheels turning and problem-solve until there are no more problems. Until you’re satisfied.

  17. joyribar

    Thanks for putting yourself out there in this post! Can’t fail if you don’t have the courage to try. Failure is such a harsh word – no wonder we take it so personally. Someday though, we should all sit down, write down the failures we remember in one column and our successes and victories in another. Then, celebrate all our accomplishments! Huzzah to you, Tracey. You’re a top shelfer.

  18. Tracey Phillips

    Thanks so much, Joy! I imagine if we listed them all, there would be more successes than failures. It’s really in the perception of how we succeed, isn’t it?
    If I’m a top-shelfer, you and the rest of the Blackbirds are sitting beside me. To you, Ms. Ribar.

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