Embracing Failure as a Necessary Step in Art

Embracing Failure as a Necessary Step in Art

Dancing near the edge

For over a month now I have been working on a poem called “Tango Near the Edge,” and in the end, it might not be any good.

I am writing it in response to a very complex prompt I found in a book of difficult writing prompts called Challenges for the Delusional. (Who can resist a title like that?)

To follow the prompt, I have to meet a series of difficult and bizarre creative hurdles all within one poem.

One of the hurdles is to use dance terminology in a poem that touches on death.

So, to make this poem I looked up terms used in tango. The terminology for tango is very rich and full of double entendres I hope to play on in my poem, which features a lover near the end of a troubling relationship.

I continue to be interested in this poem because it poses such a difficult creative challenge that it forces me to abandon most, if not all, of my usual strategies, to get out of ruts, and learn something new.

In fact, I have also chosen to impose a fixed form on the poem, in addition to the list of other challenges I have to meet. The form I have chosen is a poem of 24 lines made up of lines of six words each. I learned this form from Brenda Hillman, who in turn learned it from another poet.

This form forces a kind of economy and care on me that is helpful to corral my tendency to ramble. And something about the form has captured my imagination. I’ve used it for several poems already.

After all this time tinkering with the poem, rewriting lines, researching more tango terms and trying to weave them into the poem in a way that adds richness and doesn’t stop the reader because they don’t understand the meanings, I still don’t know if I have a poem that is good.

I have done so many revisions and still, probably the whole thing is too contrived to be successful as a piece of art.

In other words, I may have spent a good deal of my precious creative time on a dead end.

Be willing to go down dead ends

As artists, we have to be willing to go down dead ends for our art. Because in this way we grow, we stretch beyond our habits and safe zones. Art is not about playing safe and small.

Making art is a radical act that calls on all of who we are. Our art, our creativity, asks us to rise to the best we have to give, to who we are becoming, and to keep learning and honing our art.

To get there we often have to go back to being a beginner, over and over. We have to be willing to fall, to fail, to not look good or competent. Only in this way do we learn new skills, add new colors to our palette, discover voices within waiting to be sung.

“Preconceptions about what is and is not possible are as dangerous in the crafts as they are in other areas of human behavior. Meanwhile it is fun to play, and most discoveries are made by accident. Or an inspiration. But it is really an organic principle trying to find a soft spot to sprout in.

It takes a long time to learn that nothing is wasted. It takes a long time, and a lot of suffering usually, to understand that there is more to life and to poetry than our conscious purposes.”

– M.C. Richards, Centering

Be willing to be a beginner again

Years ago I attended a three-week-long residential workshop in Contact Improvisation, the dance form I have been engaging in for over thirty years.

In the workshop we had to break down core skills and try on exercises that felt awkward and hard. Even though at the time I was a fairly skilled Contact Improviser, I found myself suddenly unable to dance well at all. It was painful and embarrassing.

It wasn’t until I returned from the workshop and had some weeks to integrate the learning into my body that suddenly my dancing blossomed to a whole new level.

But I had to be willing to go through the awkwardness of new learning, to step out of my comfort zone, to go down what felt like dead ends and appear terrible as a dancer, in order to emerge from the chrysalis in a new form.

Embrace the awkwardness

Martin Keogh, a wonderful teacher of Contact Improvisation, once said in a workshop, “Embrace the awkward moments. Don’t try to rush through them in the dance.”

I encourage you not only to embrace the awkwardness and be a beginner again and again, but also to embrace challenge in your art, embrace your “failures,” your ruined canvasses, your awful poems, your embarrassing performances, your dead ends.

You never know where these might lead.

Know that you are doing this in service to your art. And celebrate yourself for being brave, for trying something new, and for making art at all.

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