We’re in Oxford, Mississippi, strolling the square on Christmas Eve Eve (that is, the night before the night before Christmas). Colored lights drape the trees. Cheerful diners pack the restaurants. As we and our family walk down the street, our happy chatter fogs the damp evening air.
We end up at Square Books, Oxford’s quintessential independent book store. Given my habit of almost exclusively reading books on my iPad and iPhone, I’m not much in bookstores these days. Walking up and down the aisles of bound, printed books stirs a deep and unexpected emotional response. At least twice, despite the jolly atmosphere of the night, I catch myself batting back tears.
As we leave the shop, I spot a book turned face down on a table near the front door. On impulse, I pick it up and flip it over and see the title: A Short Bright Flash. I nudge my sister-in-law and say, “Look! It’s a book about my writing career!”
Outside, as we walk to dinner, the comment sticks with me. There was a time I called myself a writer, an author. What happened to that guy? And, more importantly, what happened to the books he was going to write? Not the Tarot books I wrote in the early 2000’s — those are what they are, and did what they did — but the novels? Where are those stories? Those characters? Those adventures?
What happened to the books I always thought I’d write? That I trained myself to write? That I outlined … and fiddled with … and abandoned?
And right there, walking the square in Oxford, Mississippi, it hits me: when my time comes — and, for all of us, that time will come — the only regret I’ll have will be not having written those books.
* * * * *
In my heart, I know why I didn’t write them.
I’ve had plenty of time. I’ve got adequate talent. I have the skills. I know the process. I have people who believe in me, who have supported me, who have encouraged me to do what I’ve always dreamed of doing. And now, technology makes it trivially easy for anyone to write, release, and market a book. None of these factors held me back.
No, the only reason you can’t go out and buy a real novel from Mark McElroy today is this: I’ve been afraid to fail.
What if I wrote a book … and no one cared? What if I wrote a book, and people hated it? What if I wrote a book, and it was remarkably, comically, fabulously terrible? What if the plot fell apart? What if the characters were inconsistent? What if the idea that seemed so great floundered 20,000 words into the tale? What if I discovered that I had invested months of my life in creating a book that did little more than prove that my desire to write a book outstrips my ability to write one?
And so: I started dozens of books … but abandoned them. I talked to friends about great ideas … but never put the stories on the page. I committed to writing every day … but eventually gave myself permission to divert that time to projects from work … or the crisis of the moment … or the distractions of the Internet.
And, like so many other timid folks, rather than face those fears, I elected to seek out something else to do — something rewarding, something I’m good at, something I can do to further the goals of someone else — instead of having the courage and accountability needed to pursue my own dreams.
* * * * *
This year, I’m giving myself a Christmas present: permission to fail.
I hereby give myself permission to finish a bad novel. I give myself permission to put something out there that isn’t everything I hoped. I give myself permission to provide easy grist for harsh critics to rip apart. I give myself permission to be a C+ writer, a hack, a clumsy novelist, a less-than-stellar storyteller. I give myself permission to not be a brand name author. I give myself permission to write books others will see as silly, or vulgar, or pointless, or vapid, or uninspired.
I give myself permission to write every day, even if that inconveniences others. I give myself permission to assign my writing greater priority than anything else I’m invited to do. I give myself permission to hold myself accountable, to stop trying to please external authorities, and to claim my own authority to set my own course, write my own way, and finish what I start.I give myself permission to do my best work, whatever that is … and to have it fail spectacularly.
I give myself permission to fail.
And when my time comes — and it will come, for all of us — I may regret that the work wasn’t loved, or polished, or famous, or perfect … but I will not regret having failed to do it at all.
* * * * *
This Christmas, I invite you to give yourself the same gift I’ve picked out for myself.
If you could move forward in 2015, unfettered by any fear of failure, what would you set out to achieve?