On the highest shelf of a storage closet, in the furthest part of my basement, behind a room someone painted purple—for reasons known only to them—are three boxes. I’ve never opened them. What’s in them? A photography darkroom kit I would have done anything for twenty years ago. Now they are just dreams put on a shelf.
I wanted to be a famous artist, like Modigliani or Picasso, or Mary Engelbreit. I envisioned art installations at galleries with photo emulsion-washed linen—fifteen feet high. Anyway, I’ve never done an installation, not one. And my gallery sales to date: two paintings. I could say I’m a failure at becoming a famous artist. But then, there’s something about the writing life that flourishes in failures. 
So to all your storytellers out there who constantly dip your pen into that inkwell (and don’t always feel like the Olympic-sized winner you really are) I wanted to explain why I love being a failure. Possibly, you have a similar list with vague intentions to use those castoff failures somewhere or other: There was the time I failed at being a banker, but I know that that bank vault scene
in my middle grade novel is truly accurate. Or what about the time I failed at being a secretary, a janitor, a nanny, or a preschool teacher? they could be professions for my characters’ parents. Then there were those failed friendships, a marriage, ten consecutive summer gardens, the time I tried to sew pants. Okay, so maybe all of you haven’t failed at as many things as I have. But you might be thinking that life is fodder for art, or writing, or something like that. Right?

Sure, maybe the missteps we own are the crap we shovel into the compost heap called the writing life. Well, I think there is more to it than that. Our failures form not just what we write, but how we write. Something about our writing process changes from experience. The kind of failure that I’m talking about are the kind in which you mastered something; truly loved something only you put it away in order to write. We all have these failures hiding on a shelf in our closet, but you know what I love about being a failure? Failing to become that museum quality artist is exactly what made me into the writer I am today.

Let me describe my process. Here I am writing my first novel, or third (or at least the one I promise not to throw away this time). I feel totally confident from all my Master’s level classes: I’ve got Plot from Marsha Qualey; Point of View from Phyllis Root and Jackie Briggs Martin (I can still hear them talking about ducks “Oh, no, mud!” they are saying in very duck-like voices); I have endowed objects, and talismanic words in my dialogue just like Ron Koertge said I should; I have Eleanora’s third leg of the three legged stool—Setting; and I have asked myself WWJRTD? What would Jane Resh Thomas do to find out what my character truly desires; and I’ve even tried to build a world which follows find Anne’s heroic monomythic journey. I’m left alone to face something worse than the blank page, reams of really bad free writing. That’s when the beauty starts. 

Now that I’ve built a framework out of the best advice anywhere (Thank you Hamline MFAC!) but my poor novel still resembles a scared rabbit in the headlights, my failures kick in. Suddenly I know what to do: Ah, now it’s time to sketch in the layout. Now it’s time to add contrast and color to my characters. Now it is time to paint the scene. My writing process takes on new terminology unique to my own experiences and failings. I know that because I’ve learned how to do one thing well, I can learn another. That includes writing a novel, or maybe a graphic novel, or a play. So in fact, my past failures weren’t really failures, they were just the beginning. My failure was really the foundation of everything. It’s what I write and more importantly it’s how I write.

One of my favorite authors, E.L. Konigsburg sums up the process of calligraphy writing in her novel, The View from Saturday, and I think loving our failures as storytellers works pretty much the same way:

“You must think of those six steps not as preparation for the beginning but as the beginning itself.”       

Polly McCann is a 2011 graduate of the Hamline MFAC program. To learn more about her writing and illustrating, please visit her website.