Failure is the Mother of Success: What Editors Have Taught Me About Life

In Japan there is a phrase 失敗を繰り返すことで、成功に至る、which means something like "repeated failure leads to success." In China and Taiwan there is a similar phrase, "Failure is the mother of success." And within Zen communities especially, you often here the phrase "100 misses, one bull's eye." In one of her essays, Aoyama Roshi described how she requested a famous Zen master make a calligraphy for her that just said "100 misses." No bull's eye. Just the misses.

I've been thinking about this recently as I plan and brainstorm my next book. For nonfiction books, the first step towards publication is querying agents or publishers, and then submitting a book proposal. While I am excited to write and put my ideas out there, I know that I will inevitably get rejected many times before I get accepted. This this is how life works, and professional writing, all the more so!

The first article I ever published took over a year to pitch, write, edit, and publish. Over a year! My first pitch was rejected, but I was asked to try again. So I rallied, wrote two or three other drafts, and resubmitted. My editor worked with me through several more drafts before finally giving it the go-ahead. All this for something like a four-page article. Now the process is a lot smoother, since I know what he's looking for, but even my best writing inevitably goes through a round of editing.

My first book is being published next year (I hope), and it has taken me about two years to get to this point. My first proposal was flat-out rejected by multiple publishers. I was hurt, and it took me a whole year to lick my wounds and try again. But I rebranded, tried again, and got a "maybe, if you play your cards right." Eventually my second proposal was accepted, and I wrote a first draft, which my editor wasn't too happy about. I honestly almost quit at this point, but didn't. Harnessing all my endurance and insight into the nature of "failure," I edited my butt off, and I improved. And now, there's a book.

I had a writing teacher in high school who kept all the rejection letters she ever received from literary magazines pasted to the wall. She collected and displayed them like prizes. At the time I thought this was a kind of masochistic, ironic writer thing, but now I understand why she did it. Failure is the mother of success. It really takes failing again and again, and importantly, adapting and continuing, to get to some level of "success." This is why I love working with editors. They acknowledge that good writing is not created in a vacuum-- that actually, nothing is failure but rather, material to work with, and that good writing is about communicating effectively with a specific audience. Because writing is about communicating effectively, you might not naturally be able to do this on your own. It takes other people telling you where the writing is confusing and doesn't make sense, what parts are good, and what parts to develop more. Good communication is an ongoing process.

I'm getting married in August. Part of me is afraid: "What if the marriage fails?" Marriage often fails. Half of all marriages end in divorce. Both of my parents were divorced before meeting each other. Another part of me wants to think that even a failed marriage is worth it because... [insert upbeat proverb about failure or how loving and losing is better than never loving at all?]. But after all the bitter arguments, the mediation and and divorce attorneys, is it really fair to say a "failed" marriage was worth it? That at least it prepared you for the next relationship? Isn't that too little, too late?

In any event, I'm gonna keep writing, and failing. And loving, and failing.

Here's a poem by Jack Gilbert:

Falling and Flying 
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.


  1. Beautiful poem. I look forward to your book! A memoir?..I hope! I've been waiting for a woman to write a memoir about their Zen experience(s)(living/practicing in a zen monastery/ordaining). I appreciated Maura O'Halloran's memoir/diary very much. (and, N.Goldberg's, "Long Quiet Highway")....Anyway, we need more women's voices.

    So, thank you for your writing.

    And, marriage....there's so much I've learned over the years and the wisdom I've gained is no more than what you already know in your heart. There no mistakes.

    palms together,

  2. Congratulations, Gesshin, to you and your partner, and best wishes for many happy days to come!

    "Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see."--Arthur Schopenhauer.

    Favorite story:

    "A master of Zen archery, Kobun Chino was asked to teach a course at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. The target was set up on a beautiful grassy area on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Kobun took his bow, notched the arrow, took careful aim, and shot. The arrow sailed high over the target, went past the railing, beyond the cliff, only to plunge into the ocean far below. Kobun looked happily at the shocked students and shouted, "Bull’s eye!!"

    (WIkipedia, "Kobun Chino Otogawa")


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