In the third of three-part Convivium series based on a recent workshop he led at the Christian Writers’ Guild in Ottawa, author, lawyer and former MP John Weston maps his own experience to help others overcome fear of failure and deepen our lived faith.
Many of the things I’ve learned since 2015 have been difficult, sometimes painfully so, but they have been constructive steps to build success from failure. I would not have attempted any of them without the benefit of my election defeat.
I didn’t choose the failure but the day you commit to politics, you make failure an expectable outcome. And the failure has allowed me to experiment with my life, and with my writing.
I would go so far as to say you learn more from failure than from success. Think about it. If you succeed, you’re tempted to keep doing what you’ve been doing. Only failure opens the door wide for you to innovate, to explore. If, in your writing career, you’re stubbornly averse to failure, you may never experiment with your gifts. On the other hand, for you consistently to move from “Good to Great,” adopt the approach that failure is inevitable, and failure may be your friend.
As Annie Dillard says in her book The Writing Life: “There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin.”
This little gem refers to the uniqueness of what you write. You may not value your insights as much as other people do. You may not appreciate your uniqueness as much as your readers do. But you have a secret weapon that enables your uniqueness. This weapon comes in two parts. They have to be used together to be effective.
If you’re even thinking about a new dalliance with failure as your friend, you need this secret weapon in your back pocket. Let me introduce you to the two parts of your weapon: your faith and your writing.
The First Component of Your Secret Weapon: Your Faith
A person of faith lives on the border between the tragedy of life and the triumph of the infinite. Like all humans, you fear certain things. Everyone you know faces tragedy in life. Each of us will die. Most will get sick. Those of us who are healthy today can point to others we know who are poor, hungry, sick, or depressed. There is much to fear.
But your faith invites you to believe God designed each of us with a specific plan, as part of an awesome universe. Beyond death, there is eternal life. As Job attested, no matter how dire his plight, God had a good plan for him. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah also attested to this, a man who knew persecution, feared failure, but fought through it.
Jeremiah declared: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (29:11)
Your faith provides you a distinct perspective that allows you to believe things make sense, even oppression and injustice, sickness and tragedy, in God’s long-term plan, though we may not understand the plan.
The Second Component of Your Secret Weapon: Your Writing Gift
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn first made an impact on me when he gave a famous, iconoclastic speech to the graduating class at Harvard in 1978, while I was an undergrad there. In his book TheGulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn said each of us was at a centre of the universe. Not the centre, but a centre. Solzhenitsyn would say that writing is a big part of your “centrality” because your writing amplifies your influence.
One great example of someone who amplifies his influence through writing is David Kitz, author of the award-winning book, The Soldier Who Killed a King.
One special aspect of this book is its distinct perspective. Readers get to experience the last week in Jesus’s life through the eyes of a Roman soldier. By the time you’ve finished the book, you can almost smell the robe the soldier wore. David relates a great story, appealing to believer and non-believer alike.
Each of us as a Christian writer holds a mighty pen, the ability to communicate our faith, to influence the world around us, to change the course of history, starting one by one with each person impacted by our words.
Those who have both faith and writing skills are in a special place, equipped with an eternal perspective and the ability to communicate that perspective. They are stronger than a person without faith who can write, and stronger than a person with faith who can’t.
One of Canada’s favourite leaders, Preston Manning, published Faith, Leadership, and Public Life last year. I had the honour to review the book for Convivium, and I’d highly recommend it to you. One of Preston’s famous statements is that he’d rather run a “Do-Tank” than a “Think-Tank.” In the same vein, it’s time we converted all this talk about writing into concrete action.
Annie Dillard would agree. In fact, she’d put it even more forcefully: “The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”
In other words, you have a duty to share the gift you’ve been given.
Getting over the fear of failure and embracing it is a success in itself. But once you’ve embraced failure, worked on specific skills, and put together the two components of your secret weapon, what next?
It’s time to target a concrete goal that takes you from failure to success. It’s time to complete an article, a speech, a book, or even a poem. Taking a writing project across the finish line helps your self-esteem and, as Charles Dickens alludes in Pickwick Papers, gives you credibility.
In my own case, finishing the book required me to embrace and build on 22 failed drafts. Instead of quietly fulminating over the crisis of leadership in the West, I actually “wrote my mind”, spelling out eight values that matter for politicians. Will the book alter politics in Canada? Maybe not. But there’s a lot bigger chance of my having an influence than if I’d never written. And I learned so much along the way.
Remember, the author who published 10 books had first to publish one. You can bet her or his second book went more smoothly than the first; the third, more successfully than the second, and so on. I’m confident that, if you like my book On!, you’ll like my next one even more, whenever I get around to it.
Use your failures profitably. Reframe the impediments and deal with them. Learn the valuable lessons that only failures bring. Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from exercising your great gift, as a person of faith and writer.
Behind every triumph there is a vanquished fear. In front of your every future achievement stands a fear to be vanquished.
The good news, my friends, is that no matter how much you’ve written and published in past, your best is still in front of you.
If you can embrace failure, work on specific skills, and recognize your secret weapon, you’ll succeed in ways you never asked or imagined.
May the failure be with you!
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If literature has ability and duty to blend social issues with intimate character, Convivium contributor Josh Nadeau writes, the novels of Robertson Davies reveal those in-between spaces where things are, and are not.