Wednesday, August 03, 2005

fear of failure

One of the biggest reasons we writers and artists produce less and less as the years go by is our fear of failure. This is especially true for those who won awards or accolades, published critically acclaimed texts, or created work that resonated with an audience - all in the past.

We are paralyzed by the thought that what we're doing now or what we plan to do in the future will not be good enough or will not compare favorably with our past work, and give everyone who's looking the impression of our being a has-been. I've come across people whose past work I've admired but are no longer producing new things (or are painfully slow to do so) precisely because of this.

There is a certain Filipino trait that surfaces when we are confronted by the possibility of failure - hiya. Instead of trying something, we shrink back and say "Huwag nalang. Nakakahiya." (rather difficult to translate, but it's something like: "I'd rather not. It's shameful. People will say things and bruise my fragile ego."). We would rather not act than risk derision or censure (or worse, pity) and prefer to rest on our laurels; it's so much easier to point to a Palanca or National Book Award or two in the past, or to give the querying person a copy of your acclaimed poetry collection from three years ago, or send a jpeg of your watercolor masterpiece loved by the Cultural Center of the Philippines when you were in high school. It's safer, stress-free and firmly reminds one and all of your past glory. And it's also sad.

I think applause and awards should be enjoyed for all of a day at most. Pick up the award, go to dinner, call your friends and family, blog about it then get started on the next piece. It's not something that should go to your head and it is most certainly not something that you should lean on. As soon as you win something, you should know that it symbolizes a pat on the back for something you did in the past - and that your present and future are always in doubt. The measure of a good writer is not in the number of accolades he has accumulated, but in what he produces today and tomorrow.

Like many people, I hate failure. The difference is that I do not fear it. Yes, I'll get upset and exhale swear words that change the temperature, color and texture of the air around me, but I'm not afraid of falling down and making a fool of myself - for as long as I know I'm going to pick myself up and try again.

I despise putting together a book that does not find an audience. I loathe working on a full-length play for a long time only to junk it wholesale in the end. My heart sinks when my designated reader of my short fiction tells me that my story is bland and reeks of technique. I feel bad when I get a rejection slip from publishers in the US. I tear up when my name is not on the list of winners. But after all the initial depression, I put it all behind me and get back to work.

We cannot win all the time. We cannot expect our books to sell all the time. We cannot expect critical acclaim all the time. We cannot produce excellent fiction, plays, poetry or essays all the time. But we can certainly try to write and create to the best of our efforts all the time - and keep our creative muscles limber.

The antidote to fear of failure: the act of trying and the determination to keep on trying even when situations are grim, keeping in mind that labels like "winner" and "loser" are temporary things significant only in very limited and transient contexts.


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