Success and Failure for Writers: An Intertwined Pair

Vita Sackville-West

It’s not easy to accept that success and failure for writers are intertwined, and it’s hard to achieve our dreams without taking risks.

Most of us would rather not fail at all, gloriously or otherwise. That’s why we’re content to settle for modest success, instead of taking bold steps needed for resounding success. To fail at that which we most long for seems like a terrible fate. 

In a 1928 letter to her friend Virginia Woolf, British author Vita Sackville-West pondered, “Is it better to be extremely ambitious, or rather modest? Probably the latter is safer; but I hate safety, and would rather fail gloriously than dingily succeed.”

Truth be told, I’ve been hedging my bets in the failure and success department. I’ve scrupulously avoided the more risky path of narrative writing in favor of more sure forms of writing for which I knew I’d be paid (I know, not a small thing).  But the writing lives of many classic authors demonstrate that failure isn’t the flip side of success, but its occasional, and often necessary companion.


Charlotte Brontë’s first novel went unpublished in her lifetime

Charlotte Brontë never had the satisfaction of seeing her first novel, The Professor, in print, though not for lack of trying (it was published after her death, once her legacy was assured). 

She continued to risk failure by working on another novel while the first one haplessly made its rounds. That second effort was none other Jane Eyre, a resounding success from the moment it saw print.

The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

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Virginia Woolf: “Always with the certainty of failure”

Virginia Woolf recounted the process of writing of The Years, each day “lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of failure.” The specter of  failure was mitigated when, after its 1937 publication, Woolf exulted, “The Years is the bestselling novel in America…”

Virginia Woolf smoking at her desk

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Taking risks is essential for a writer

Risk can end in either failure or success, but the latter can rarely be achieved without the courage to fall on one’s face or make a few false starts. Madeleine L’Engle reminds us:

“Risk is essential. It’s scary….We are encouraged only to do that which we can be successful in. But things are accomplished only by our risk of failure.” How true for so many women, who are loathe to face either public or private disappointment, to be anything other than the A students we were encouraged to be.”

A wrinkle in Time 50th anniversary cover

L’Engle took a huge risk in writing A Wrinkle in Time, a book for children that overtly examined good and evil. This was the late 1950s, and editors felt that kids weren’t ready for this kind of darker, more complex literature. Some forty publishers rejected it, and though each turn-down was crushing,  L’Engle held fast to her belief in the book’s merit.

After nearly giving up, Wrinkle finally found a home and was published in 1962. The subsequent awards and sales in the millions were sweet vindication, of course.

But the point here isn’t the book’s eventual success, but L’Engle’s risking of time and energy to create the book, knowing it wouldn’t be an easy sell. She reminds us that “Writers will never do anything beyond the first thing unless they risk growing.”

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Vita Sackville-West quiote

Is it better to be a modest success than to risk failure?
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Avoid risk, avoid failure — but success could be elusive

Avoiding risk means avoiding failure. But there’s less likelihood of resounding success. Risk avoidance also prolongs lingering in one’s comfort zone — which can feel like a cozy cocoon for a while, but can grow constraining. I’ve often wondered: what if I’d been less invested in constructing a safe and somewhat predictable creative life?

What will I do with all the notebooks filled with fanciful ideas, and a smaller window of time to pursue them? For starters, I’m going to heed Madeleine L’Engle’s advice: Risk is scary and uncomfortable, but there can be no growth, and little glory, without it.

— Adapted from  The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life  by Nava Atlas

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