Why Failure is Wonderful

This week has been a terrible writing week for me. I missed out on a mentorship opportunity that I desperately wanted, I didn’t get shortlisted for a minor prize, and I’ve had a couple of rejection letters. I did get that sick feeling in my stomach and I wondered if I am wasting my time with this writing business, but then I found an origami butterfly that memoir writer, Wayson Choy gave me when I was at uni, and I remembered why failure is wonderful.

I decided that there are probably some Ricochet readers who have had some rejections and don’t think they’re wonderful, so I thought I’d share an article I wrote not long after the 2009 Brisbane Writers Festival that’s about Wayson Choy, his origami butterflies, and why failure is a wonderful thing. 

Why Failure is Wonderful

- Meeting Wayson Choy

When I went to the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2009 I was ready to give up writing. The feeling had been coming for a while. The uni year had been flying by, assignments were hard, and more than ever it seemed as though everyone in the course was competing against one another.  But most of all, I was tired of rejection.

It’s not as though I didn’t expect to experience some failure. Since my first day at QUT I’ve been prepared for it. Tutors talk about rejection letters in classes, writers talk about their failures at book launches and festivals and in magazine interviews. I was warned—I knew rejection letters would come, and they did. Because I was expecting them, every time I found one in the mail box or read a competition announcement that didn’t list my name, I let it hurt, sometimes even had a cry, and then forced myself to move on. But the problem was that I never let myself think about the failures as anything but failures. I didn’t realise that failure can be a wonderful thing and that’s why, by the time I trudged to uni on the Friday of the Writers Festival, I’d given up.

Everyone in the class loved Wayson’s session, but I loved it just that little bit more. I loved hearing someone actually stand up and say that they wrote for money and that he wished he could churn out the sort of stuff that sells millions of copies. It was the first time I’d heard a writer talk about how cocky he was when he first started university. But when he started talking about failure, that’s when he got me. At first, I was horrified to hear his story. He told us about the first short story he wrote for a university assignment. He handed it in and was called to see his professor. Thinking that he was going to be praised for his brilliant writing, he swanned into the office feeling very pleased. But the teacher handed him back his story covered in red biro markings and said:

“Do you want to be a writer?”

Wayson told him yes, he wanted to be a writer and the teacher said: “Then learn how to punctuate.”

And he was dismissed.

At first he thought it was a terrible thing that he’d failed the assignment rather than been praised the way he’d expected. But then he bought some punctuation books and realised his teacher was right, he didn’t know how to punctuate.

He moved on to tell a story of how, as a teacher of creative writing, he fails every single one of his students on the first story. And as he hands their piece back to them he smiles and says, “How wonderful, you’ve failed.”

He talked about failure and rejection with a smile on his face and I couldn’t understand why. The thought of having a teacher smile as they handed me back an assignment I’d failed was horrible. I kept thinking I’d hate to be in his class. But I realised later it wasn’t complete failure that he was talking about. What he was saying to us was, “you still have things to learn.”

By failing his students Wayson — in the same way his own professor did — was asking his students if they wanted to be writers. If the student took the criticism as an opportunity to improve their writing, they were answering, “Yes, I want to be a writer.” But those who allowed the failure to defeat them were clearly saying that writing was not for them.

Later Wayson gave us a test. He handed out sheets of paper and asked us to make a butterfly in two minutes by only tearing and folding. Of course, all our butterflies were monstrosities and at the very end of his session, he showed us up by folding a perfect origami butterfly. While he was folding he talked about a butterfly’s metamorphosis.

“A butterfly is a universally beautiful thing. But to get that way it goes through metamorphosis. It goes from being a little sluggy thing to a caterpillar and, from that, it sheds its skin a dozen times. Finally, it builds the chrysalis, hibernates and emerges a beautiful butterfly.

“The difference between your butterfly and mine is craft. I know the craft that goes into making one and you do not. It’s no different with writing. Writing has to go through metamorphosis to become something that’s considered universally beautiful.”

All the way home I kept thinking about failure and craft. I might have been studying the craft and expecting failures and rejection letters but I had always looked at the two as completely separate aspects of the writing life. I had never considered what Wayson was really saying was that failure is wonderful because it helps identify weak spots in the craft. He was telling me, if I get back a story covered in red biro, that’s a wonderful thing because now I know what I’m doing wrong. He was asking me if I wanted to be a writer. I realise now this is what other writers and tutors have been saying to me the whole time I’ve been at uni, but it just didn’t click with me until Wayson made me an origami butterfly.

Since the festival, I have noticed a change in my attitude towards writing. I no longer hand a story to my writing group and hope to be praised. I hand things in and ask them to be brutal; I don’t want any more compliments where they’re not due. I want to be a writer. I want to learn the craft and see a metamorphosis in my writing and I want, more than anything, to experience the failures along the way that will ultimately make me a better writer.

I don’t think meeting Wayson means rejection will no longer hurt. But now, every time I open one of those letters, I’ll smile and think: “How wonderful, I’ve failed.”

Melanie Saward is a wonderfully failing writer based in Sydney.  She graduated from QUT’s Creative Writing program in 2009. Her stories have been published in the recent 100 Stories for Queensland Anthology, Ricochet Mag and the first issue of Rex, an anthology of writing from QUT.

Wayson Choy  is a Chinese-Canadian writer. You can read more about him and his wonderful books here.

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