Freedom to Fail

When I got up this morning, my wife Shelly was watching a new episode of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” in which Hugh Jackman of Wolverine and Les Miserables fame was being interviewed. At the end, as always, the audience got to ask questions. One woman asked what lessons he learned in his early acting years. He told her that he learned not to be afraid of making a fool of himself, “not like clowning around, but utterly failing on stage.” It wasn’t until one risked total and complete failure that one could rise to the top.

And there’s definitely a message for us writers there. We all want success, but how much are we willing to risk to achieve it? Are we willing to be publicly humiliated for the sake of our art? I have admitted before that public humiliation is one of the biggest fears that I have. And so for me the question is a real one. How far are we willing to go for our art?

One of the exercises I use in the classroom is to challenge my student writers to step out of their comfort zone and write about those personal secrets that they have that they never share–with anyone. From this sense of vulnerability comes an authenticity that cannot be faked and is almost always appreciated–and rewarded. It’s not an easy thing to do, but no one said learning to be a great writer is easy. “Writing is easy,” wrote the sportswriter Red Smith. “You just open a vein and bleed onto the page.”

Learning the craft simply takes time–and determination. It’s what comes afterward that is hard. Vulnerability can’t be faked. It’s painful, but it is something every artist needs to pursue.

Once we are willing to risk it all, we have a chance of gaining it all.