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Permission to Fail (or Play)

Sketch PadIn today’s culture of “go big or go home,” I think there’s a tendency to put the arts in a box labeled “talent or not.” Talent can be a dangerous word for an artist because it implies a high chance of success for each attempt.

The problem there is that we often don’t give ourselves permission to fail and end up creating unnecessary stress and tension in our creative lives.

Creativity is playful. It wants to be messy, to experiment. To create. That is its own reward. It helps to understand that some writing days and projects are mess, and that’s okay.

A master carpenter didn’t walk up to a lathe one day and turn out a perfect spindle. He spent years studying his craft, practicing various techniques, and learning to feel the machine and wood together.

Likewise, an award-winning designer first had to cultivate knowledge of color theory, texture, and form, and spend a lot of time arranging, rearranging, experimenting, and trying out different theories.

Writers are no different. If you want to publish, there’s pressure to “not waste time” and produce only publishable material.

Creativity doesn’t care. It doesn’t know failure. It just knows the process.

If it helps, think of it as permission to experiment. Or permission to practice.

Here’s a quote from the author of Booklife:

One of the things I always loved about the brilliant English writer Angela Carter was her fearlessness. I think she always gave herself permission to fail, and she didn’t care. She wouldn’t have cared if she’d written ten stories that never saw publication if that got her to a place where she’d be able to write one truly extraordinary piece.

I don’t know where the idea came from that writers didn’t need to practice and play. Of course we do. Writing is no different in that respect than woodworking or playing a sport. The more we practice and play with writing, the better we get (and the more ideas we are likely to generate). It’s how we challenge ourselves and how we stretch and grow as writers.

Stories that go nowhere or die before they reach 10,000 words are practice. Writing to a prompt is practice. Experimenting with POV is practice. Trying a scene a couple different ways is practice.

Being an artist or having talent does not mean you are required to produce something useable every time you sit down to write. Give yourself permission to play, to experiment, and yes, to fail. The benefit is that the more you do, the better your odds and producing something truly special.


How often do you allow yourself to “play” with words? How has it helped your writing over all?

8 thoughts on “Permission to Fail (or Play)

  1. Hmm, someone provided a wonderful set of journal prompts at the beginning of this year – yep, still doing them. Every. single. day 🙂

    This reminds me of a talent show we watch weekly – American Idol. I am amazed when these artists look at a performance as their one and only shot to make something of themselves in an audition. It reminds me that we are way too rough on ourselves, and put too much unnecessary pressure on ourselves too, when we don’t allow ourselves to play – and fail.

    Here’s to more playing – with words or whatever creative endeavor floats your boat. Thanks, as always , Robyn for sharing such a necessary message to all us creative perfectionists 🙂

  2. LOVE – I needed to hear this today. I have been struggling with a project, but your encouragement has motivated me to do my best and ship it. I will work with my client IF he needs any changes! #HUGS

    Thanks, dearest Robyn

  3. Play is a particular interest of mine, and there’s been research demonstrating all that it contributes not only to creativity but to learning and social and emotional development. Unfortunately we live in a culture that tends to value art and creativity only when it leads to productivity and especially money. If you’re a creative entrepreneur and build a successful business, that’s okay, but if you’re a creative writer/actor/performer and you don’t make a lot of money (however powerful and innovative your work), that’s not generally valued. And play? Hell, American workers don’t even take all their vacation days. So there’s a lot culturally for a writer to swim against. But I think of serious play as the essence of what I do.

  4. Fabulous post! I spend a lot of time writing things that never end up being anything worth reading–but they let me poke around and explore new things and get to the point where I can write something good. I never (okay, rarely) think of those scraps of writing as a failure, even though they aren’t going anywhere. You’re absolutely right–it’s absurd to expect ourselves to churn out great literature without experimenting and practicing and playing.

  5. Yes, yes, yes, Robyn! This was exceptional from start to finish. This was my favorite line of all, “Creativity doesn’t care. It doesn’t know failure. It just knows the process.”


  6. Playtime is learning time. Everything I write is an experiment of one kind or another. Mostly, I write just to get ideas out of my head. Some of them go on to bigger (I won’t say better) things, others go into the crucible of my notebook where they react with the rest into either another idea or a soupy mess…usually the mess.

    • Oooh, Chris. I also write to get ideas out of my head. Especially, novels. These people won’t leave me alone until I write down their stories. I get headaches if I try to avoid them for too long!

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