Fail Better: The Importance of Falling Short

The lawnmower saga from last week continues. My neighbor said he thought it would be a good idea if I mowed my lawn with his zero-turn before I committed to buying one. My neighbor is a smart man. I later told him I thought my mowing was a success because, one, I didn’t damage his mower, and two, I didn’t kill him trying to get it out of his garage, though I may have come close with the latter. Those zero-turns aren’t fooling around. Any slight error in steering can send one spinning in a circle.

I mowed our side yard in lines that looked like I’d either been drunk or perhaps attacked by a swarm of bees. “You have to find center,” my neighbor told me when he gave me a tutorial. He was referring to the two handles that you have to manage in order to drive one of these things. I thought I was starting to get the hang of it when Cathy pleaded with me to, “Please stop.” I finished with my push mower.

Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure that given time I could have learned to drive that zero-turn like a pro, but the whole idea of getting a riding lawnmower is so Cathy can share in the mowing duties or take them over if, as she says, something ever happens to me. Cathy insists a steering wheel is a must, so it looks like we’ll be considering lawn tractors.

I feel like a bit of a failure because I couldn’t master the zero-turn right away. I use to feel the same way when, as a boy, I worked with my father on our farm. No matter how patient he was when he showed me how to do some sort of mechanical work, I’d usually end up botching it and my father would grow impatient when I said I just couldn’t do it. “Can’t never did nothing,” he’d say, and he’d make me keep trying until the job was done.

The feeling of failure was always connected to the watchful eye of my father who made me feel like I had to be good at everything he’d been good at before he lost his hands in that corn picker accident. When it comes to writing, the truth is we don’t have to be as good as someone else; we just have to be better than we were before. We need to stop measuring ourselves against other writers and instead evaluate our progress as we keep practicing our craft.

In order to improve, we often need time away from the watchful eyes of others. Sometimes we need years and years to write and write before we’re ready to submit to the evaluation of agents, editors, and contest judges. We need to see ourselves getting better before we’re ready to expose ourselves to the judgment of the gatekeepers. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially these days in a culture that insists on immediate gratification, but if we can find in within ourselves to accept a slower process, one in which our understanding of craft will deepen and deepen, we’ll save ourselves a lot of heartache. We’ll free ourselves to make mistakes and to learn from them in the privacy of our writing rooms. This famous quote from Samuel Beckett expresses the importance of being willing to fall short: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Falling short of perfection is necessary to our progression. In time, we’ll see our work getting better until finally one day we’ll be ready to show it to the world. Be patient. Work steadily. Be forgiving. No writer ever succeeded without first failing, again and again and again.




  1. Remy on September 22, 2021 at 10:46 pm

    Hello Lee,
    I just wanted to tell you about how much this post opened my eyes. I just started really writing, not for a prompt but for me in my creative writing class. Coming into it I’ve tried to emulate the writers I loved reading but they never were personal because it wasn’t me. This was discouraging, but when I realized my mistakes I figured that I would need to grow into myself as a writer and be more original. I love how this talks about the need to fail in order to get better, I always have heard this but it never resonated with me as much as it does with trying to write. Thank you for sharing this because ill definitely think about it and not be so harsh on myself.

    • Lee Martin on September 23, 2021 at 11:17 am

      Thanks so much for sharing this, Remy. I always say that writing is a life-long apprenticeship because each piece requires something different from us. We come up short sometimes, but we keep going, internalizing various strategies for dealing with what the work demands. All best wishes to you!

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