In Praise of Mistakes


Because I’ve been deeply involved in reading Eric Maisel’s wonderful book, Fearless Creating, I’ve been thinking a lot about mistakes.  Failure.  Blowing it.

 In order to succeed as artists, and in order for our students to succeed, we must feel the freedom to take risks.  Taking risks often results in failure.  Just creating can be taking a risk, because it inevitably involves these mistakes. 

We must give our students and ourselves the freedom to fail.

Working writers already know this.  Witness Anne Lamott’s famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in Bird by Bird (if you haven’t read this book yet and you’re interested in writing, you simply must).  Eric Maisel writes that we must view creating as “a mistake making adventure.”  For this reason John Irving says half of his life is revision.  Philip Roth offers to hold up his own bad drafts beside anyone else’s just for sheer badness.

What does this mean in our test-driven, product-driven, results-driven society?  We simply must make room for teaching our students that mistakes, and failure are the only route to success.  The first step may well be freely sharing our own mistakes with them, sharing our own drafts, our own bad writing.  Not just the good stuff.

In my own introductory creative writing classes, I do this by not grading my student’s creative work.  Yes, I respond to it thoughtfully, carefully, and in writing, talking specifically about strengths and weaknesses.  But I don’t grade it.  Lots of other work in this class does receive a grade, peer reviews, book reviews, cover critiques, reflective work.  Just not the creative stuff.  My students love this.  It gives them the freedom to try new things.  It gives them the freedom to fail.

 How do you give your students the freedom to fail?


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4 responses to “In Praise of Mistakes

  1. Cindi Hoppes

    Good Day! I don’t have students, but I do work with my sons and their writings. When they come home with a graded creative writing assignment, it does not make me a happy camper! They want to give up and not even do a revision. This is where my encouragement comes in! Cindi

  2. I’ve recently become slightly obsessed with the idea of failure. Lately I’ve been going through and purchasing video games with either really neat and innovative concepts or that showed a lot of promise or garnered a lot of hype, then ultimately failed, commercially or critically. Sometimes the idea was too ambitious for the available hardware, or too big to be implemented. Sometimes it was rushed to market and gameplay wasn’t as polished as it should’ve been. Sometimes, it was a great game that was just too weird for the public, but almost all of them involve that sort of creative risk that you talk about, on a massive scale, and I find it fascinating. (Maybe I’ve told you this before?)
    Anyway, I’m very sympathetic to your feelings on failure. Film critic Nathan Rabin at the A.V. Club spent a whole year reviewing two massive flops a week. My Year of Flops is here:
    If you’re interested. The reviews are generally insightful and really funny.

  3. Mike

    I don’t have students, and I can barely give myself room to fail! Actually, I only consider failures those words I never actually wrote. Anything that makes it to the page is a success in progress…kinda like me..;o)

  4. Aww, thanks! It’s nice to know that all of it’s interesting to SOMEbody. 🙂

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