When NASA was given the job to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth, one of the Apollo engineers remarked that they were entering a nine-year period that would be characterized by nothing but failures. Success could only be achieved after every possible mistake had been made on the ground, in order that they would not occur in the air. The engineers coined an expression about this that became their motto: Failure is a tool for making progress.
This principle applies not only to engineering; it is also true of artistic endeavors. It is a description of the creative process.
During the race to the moon, the Apollo engineers were often under siege by Congress, the press and the public for their string of failures. Jim Webb, the director of NASA, ran constant interference with the powers-that-be in order to give his engineers what they needed to succeed, which was, the need to fail.
The engineers frequently succumbed to their own fears and anxieties about failure as well, and on one occasion, brought the Apollo mission to a complete standstill. During those times, Webb became cheerleader-in-chief, helping to alleviate the fears of his team—as well as his own.
Failure is a difficult concept to embrace, especially for writers who are just starting out. It’s hard for those of us who have been at it for a while, too—just as it was for the engineers who understood its utter necessity in getting to the moon.
When something isn’t working on the page, we tend to panic. We beat ourselves up or we get depressed. We allow our fears and anxieties to overtake us and try to rush our projects to “success” without giving them the requisite steps of failure. It’s understandable. The stakes are high—especially for us playwrights whose work has such a “public” dimension. Egos, careers and money are on the line, after all. But this fear of failure makes a difficult process even more difficult, and often holds a play back from becoming all it could be.
Failure is a tool for making progress.
Put this over your desk. Remind yourself of this often—especially when the writing isn’t going well.
If you are failing, you’re on the right track. If you’ve made a wrong turn, it will lead to the right one. The next time you meet with failure, try to embrace it. It means you are on your way to finding the solution.