Application of Failure in Science and Comedy

Lisa Burton


February 16, 2021

I have a background in science and theatre (double major) and I’d like to chat about your creative practice. Failure is a celebrated part of learning when it comes to science because it tells you what didn’t work so you can move forward (like the parts that Charles Darwin got wrong in his theory of evolution...look, we’ve gotten past it). I’ve failed a lot in my life and you need to be failing regularly if you want to gain a deeper understanding of what you want out of your own creative practice. In my nearly 18 years of doing theatre and science, I’ve come to learn failure is a necessary component of both if you’re trying to get better at either (or anything, really). 

Failure can take a lot of forms--and while it is a gift, it’s not always easy to see it that way. You have the failure to “get the thing” that you worked hard for. How many auditions have you been to, essays/scripts/packets you’ve submitted, applications you’ve filled out and either didn’t hear anything back or were told no? Then there’s the failure when you don’t get asked to “do the thing.” Perhaps a group who you are friends with or adjacent to begins a project that you didn’t get asked to be part of. And don’t forget the failure of “your project didn’t get enough attention” and you maybe didn’t make the amount of money that you intended. Whatever event your feeling of failure stems from, it nearly always transforms into the toxic dark room of “I’m not good enough.”

I want to give you actionable advice through the “I’m not good enough” feeling. I’ve read enough self-help and artistic support books to drag us all through a bland “well you just meditate for 5 minutes and then write your heart out” listicle. No, I’d never do that. Instead I’d like to offer a baby four-piece, bite-sized, very actionable listicle that offers up extra reading along the way so you can go read them yourself while you procrastinate your own creative practice. 

Start where you are

This practical-ass advice is also a book by Meera Lee Patel and goddammit if I don’t think of this phrase every time I get upset that I’m not a better writer or a better funny person or a better creative person or that I’m too old or that--okay you get it. 

I just come back to the phrase “Start where you are.” Because there’s literally nowhere else to start. You only have here. Right now. Even bigshot-type people. Like, what if they did one great thing, shot straight to an amazing gig, and now they’re expected to be really really good when they’re only, like, kinda good? They have to start from where they are. Nowhere else to start. 

Have two different facets of your life to dwell in

Wait what? Aren’t I supposed to throw all of my stress and anxiety into one friggen basket until I die or get famous?! No. You aren’t. You should do lots of your creative work, but I am recommending to you that you have a dayjob AND do your creative work. Another option is that you have your creative work AND you have another hobby you really dig. Har Mar Superstar is a musician AND during the Pandemic he has taken a dayjob delivering mail. He didn’t need to, he just recognized the need for mail carriers and did it. I’ll say this, I have been very fortunate to have jobs that I’ve loved AND be able to do my creative work. Right now, my circumstances have shifted and my creative work is my main moneymaker so I’ve readjusted so that my hobby (gardening and plants) is my secondary focus. Most of the reason I do this is to mitigate my own anxiety in either facet of my life. If my creative life isn’t going how I’d hoped, I focus on gardening. If my plants are dying, I’ll refocus into my creative life. On the other hand, if my plants are thriving, I’m feeling more confident overall, and when I’ve completed a project I’m more ready to learn a new gardening skill. That variety helps open my creative brainwaves and helps me pave new paths in both arenas. 

You didn’t miss your opportunity

What about that time when I saw Lorne Michaels and someone introduced us and he asked if I wanted to be on SNL and I fumbled my words and then he squinted his eyes at me, took a sip of his water and walked away from the conversation mumbling, “I guess she don’t got it”? Nah, you didn’t miss that opportunity. Think about why you say shit like, “I don’t really like SNL right now and I bet the job really sucks but if they’d hire me, I’d definitely take the opportunity”, is it because you think that opportunity would get you an option for your screenplay? That it would legitimize you in the eyes of your heroes? Let’s skip the middleman and just write your screenplay. Then, figure out a way to get the funding for it (like, I dunno, saving up from your dayjob), then ask around and make the movie. If that’s too much work for you, then reconsider if you really want to do it. Mary Tilden is an incredible inspiration in this realm. She and her partner, Leah Raidt wanted to make a movie and they did it. They just...did it. Let’s work on solutions, baby, not problems and for certain we need to consider if we’re just being lazy. That laziness will take years off your life. Trust me. 

Find practical tools that work for you to keep you going

I’m addicted to finding new tactics to get myself to sit down and just write. Or just paint. Or just send the email asking to collaborate on something. Tools that work for me: setting a timer to do 15- to 30-minute writing sprints for a couple hours every other day or so. Deadlines with a friend, or creating a public-facing project with deadlines. Telling other people I’m going to do a thing. Writing out a list of all of my errands or things I have to do, and then having that for when I’m done writing. Right now, there are, like, too many opportunities to put out sketches or create your own arty instagram, or play around on TikTok that you can absolutely be trying out a thing. For more inspiration, here’s a thing that iO alum Liz Thompson wrote for the Final Draft blog about writing strategy, but honestly, I think a lot of it can be applied to any creative endeavor.

All of that said, it’s always okay to take breaks. Things are tough right now and in Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones she is really adamant that you can’t create about something that you’re in the middle of because you need distance to gain perspective. Take the time you need. You could take a few days, a few weeks, a few years and come back. Your creative self will always be there, soaking in, interpreting the world in the way that only you can and when you’re ready to express, that self will be there. BUT if right now, you have the drive to be creative and are spinning your wheels in a frozen alley of “I can’t” then let’s take a deeper look, see if there’s failure to learn from, and take a little baby step forward because you have a unique perspective and the world is excited to hear it whenever you are ready.

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