Tuesday, April 21, 2009


I finished a small art quilt over the weekend. If you follow the photoblog, it's the fiber art quilt I was working on last month. I didn't want to go back to it, but I needed to get the thing finished, so I could burn it as soon as I was done.

Why, you ask? Because despite great care, effort, focus and many hours of work, I did not achieve even remotely what I had hoped to do. Or, in simpler terms, I failed.

I try to learn something from my failures (after I whine and sniffle and kick a few pillows first.) Here's what this experience taught me.

1. Other people's fiber art is beautiful. Mine? Is not.

2. Fibers are pretty until you put them on things. Then they just look hairy.

2a. Colorful, but hairy.

3. Beadwork does not camouflage this effect.

3a. It doesn't make it look ethnic, either.

3b. Actually it has kind of the same effect as putting lipstick on an orangutan.

3c. A great big hairy orangutan.

4. Setting aside something you think is ugly for a couple of weeks does not make it look prettier.

5. I now believe contemplating using glitter glue between the beadwork in another effort to disguise said hairiness is the art quilter's equivalent of hitting rock-bottom.

I was disappointed, sure. I spent a couple of weeks pinning and stretching and rearranging and tacking down those blasted fibers. I could have made something I know how to make instead of wasting my time on this stupid project. I wouldn't have little bits of fiber all over the sewing room, either. I know I'll feel better after I paint and sulk for a couple of days, but still. All that work!

But I learned something else in addition to all of the above. Aside from the glaring fact that fibers are not my friends, I need to do this again. Oh, believe me, I'll practice on something simpler, smaller, or less involved than an art quilt when I make another go of it. But if I give up after just one attempt, those evil quilt-ruining fibers will win. No furry textile string on this planet is going to get the best of me.

As writers, we all have our failures. We envision something, but try as we might, we can't translate it to the page. We submit, only to receive nothing but rejections. We publish, and watch our book go unnoticed, or worse, tank. There's more than one novel sitting on my hard drive or filed away in the cabinet upstairs that I never finished, or never got an editor to read. I have several books that didn't sell well; I have a couple that hardly sold at all.

In today's society we're expected to succeed, and that's something we should all strive for, but I think we also have to expect to sometimes fail. No one does everything perfectly every time. Sometimes it's our fault, and sometimes it's simply the luck of the draw.

I don't like failing, but I understand that failure can be friend or foe, fuel or frustration. I can let failure depress me (and there is nothing more depressing than looking at an endeavor I botched) or I can let it fire me up. Failure often makes me angry, but it also feeds my determination. I didn't do something right, then I'll try again. I'll remember what I did the last time. I'll use that to guide me, not grind me down.

I love quilting and making beautiful things, so it's embarrassing to have something I quilt turn out to be not so pretty. But it's also good for me. I know I need an ugly quilt every now and then to remind me that I'm not perfect, and I need to keep learning from my mistakes. Whatever we do, it is just one thing, and we can always do another thing.

I'll have a picture of the ugly quilt up on the photoblog tomorrow -- and I'm not going to burn it. I'll probably hang it up on my Wall of Why. In the meantime, how do you guys cope with failure? Do you think it's as valuable to our personal growth as succeeding is, or am I full of nonsense today?


  1. Mope...for weeks. Get angry. Put water wings on and tramp around in my pity pool for one. Think hard, then regroup.

  2. There's a Japanese martial arts saying: fall down seven times, stand up eight.

    If you're not willing to fall down, you'll never learn how to stand up.

    Which doesn't mean falling is fun, of course. Really really good chocolate is my coping aid of choice.

  3. I crochet. I have for years. As a result I have lots of left over yarn.

    Two years ago, I decided to take that yarn and make a scraps quilt. In order to enhance the impending ugliness of a project made from scraps, I deliberately matched yarns together that looked awful.

    Peppermint variegated reds next to lime green next to mustard next to hideous purples. A kaleidoscope of offensiveness.

    Turned out to be one of the most beautiful blankets I ever made.

    Never underestimate the power of ugly.

  4. How do I cope with failure? Sometimes I sulk like a four year-old. But I do believe failure is part of personal growth. (You're not full of nonsense at all.) If I never failure I never challenge myself. I never take on something that makes me think, that forces me outside of my comfortable, but restrictive rut. And when I master something I've failed at in the past the satisfaction is wonderful.

    (I can't wait to see the hairy quilt.)

  5. Anonymous8:03 AM

    Samuel Beckett speaks of 'failing better' which has at its core the understanding that we will fail and that there will be a next time! I firmly believe (and taught) that we learn only when we fail. Our successes demonstrate knowledge, skills, etc that we had already achieved.

    You learned a great deal from this attempt. The next one will be different. Can't wait to see it.

  6. Very well said. I linger in failure way too long. Then I dust myself of and try and fix it. If I can't I move on to the next project. I knit. Funny I finally finished a pair of socks that took forever and posted them on my blog today. I can't wait to see your quilt. I've knitted many mistakes in my time. And written many mistakes.

  7. What went wrong, why, how can I avoid that particular problem in the future..those are the things I try to take away from a failure.

  8. I guess it depends on how sure I was I succeeded before I found out I failed. It's almost like my hair-do in tenth grade. I had this whole thing going on, which I was absolutely sure made me look sultry and mature. Then I got my class pictures and found out I'd been walking around looking like a dork all year.

    So for me, maybe the size of the crushing blow has more to do with being wrong than with the failure itself. I know the full I had out at the end of '08 knocked me apart when it came back as a rejection. It was a really great rejection, too, but I was so sure it wouldn't be one. It hurt worse than all the others combined.

  9. I think you have to be willing to fail to succeed. Or you always play it safe, never try anything new, never stretch yourself.

    I'm trying a new approach to my failures; instead of berating myself, I'm trying to see it as growth, a necessary step on the way, or just being human. It's not comfortable to fail, but comfort doesn't produce much art, does it?

  10. Anonymous9:10 AM

    I come here and read things from wiser people. :) Actually, given a story that I'm working on, this was very insightful for me today. I was ready to write it off as a failure, even though part of my brain knew I'd learned something. I think it will help me figure out how much more I need to fiddle with this before it goes into my newly established "File of Why?"

  11. My condolences on that quilt.

  12. I sulk. Then I move on.

    And yep, I think failure is valuable.

    Without those little lessons, you don't always work as hard and you don't always appreciate the successes when they come.

  13. I used to be ashamed of my failures (too many to mention) but now I'm glad I at least tried. I didn't settle for less than spectacular, even if it was spectacular failure.

  14. You're such an inspiration, you really are. And I'm very sorry your quilt was ugly. It sounds adorable, though.

  15. I would much rather look back on my life and know I tried and perhaps failed, than to never have tried anything at all.

    So, I sniff for about five minutes, then I suck it up and move on.

  16. A worse failure would be to never try anything new and make the same kind of quilt over and over and over and over until you could do it in your sleep.

    I'm a fan of a writer who used to write 60k fun mysteries. He was great at it, even 20 books later. Then, he wrote a BIG book. It was supposed to be his breakout. It was terrible. I was angry. I felt my time and money was wasted. Why couldn't he write another little mystery? I couldn't wait to get that BIG book into the recycling bin.

    Then a wise friend said, "Oh, you got to see him take a baby step."

    That book is still on my shelf, snuggled up with his other books. It's a talisman for me now.

    I'm glad you're keeping your quilt intstead of burning it.

  17. I give the quilt to a charity then I cut more fabric. There's always more fabric! :)


  18. Anonymous8:16 PM

    I'm a quilter, a sewer and a knitter. Failure is part of the package. I probably have more loser projects than winning ones. (Worst project: the skirt I wore to a Tupperware party that I thought looked pretty good. Until someone--a complete stranger--asked me if I made it.) Those failed projects make my heart ache a little. Dreams dashed. Time wasted. How do I cope? I remind myself that I learned something and I enjoyed the process. And then I go look at a project that was successful. Like the adorable baby quilt for my friend's little boy. And the sweater I made last winter that always draws compliments and questions of, "Where did you buy that?" And the short stories that were published and received wonderful acceptance letters from the editors. (Still working on getting the novels published.)

  19. Actually, failure doesn't bother me as much as it might because...well...I'm only human. If I accept failure in others, why shouldn't I accept it in myself?

    That doesn't mean I like it, though. And my motto in life is "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me". If you stretch it, it applies to failure as well. The first failure, I can chalk up to inexperience, ignorance, or immaturity. The second? Absolutely no excuse. I should have learned from the first one.

    I rarely make the same mistake twice. It's kind of a vendetta of mine. It always hurts worse the second time around.

  20. Personal growth? More like a personal shrink.

  21. Hugs and ouch on the poor outcome, but I look at things like this as a journey. I am a Jill of all trades, decent at many things but master in none...though writing is obviously the winner with guitar second. But here's the thing: there are a lot of crafts, hobbies, things, whatever that I've tried. Some I enjoy at a basic level, some I strive to improve, and some I hate from the moment I begin. But if I'd never risked that hate (and the failure that provokes it), I'd never know how I felt, and I could never learn to embrace and use that feeling. So yeah, I think failures teach us useful things even if it's just how we react and how we handle it.

    On the software side, and I think this applies to writing too, if all you do is succeed, you don't learn as much because the path is too easy. You never have to ask why you do something because it just works. And the first time you're faced with something that doesn't, it's a disaster because you've never learned how to think outside of the box. That's what trial and error, what failing a time or two, teaches, and it's an irreplaceable lesson.

  22. I try to remember that failure is often subjective. I bet that at least one person will love your "ugly" quilt when you post its pic tomorrow. So, if someone else likes it, is it a failure really?

    When I fail, I try to remind myself that we don't learn anything from getting it right the first time.