Stories of how failures lead to successes

Explore The Art of Failure with Devon Sproule (pictured), Lulu Miller and David Zahl at Meade Hall on March 6. Photo by Amelia Schmid Explore The Art of Failure with Devon Sproule (pictured), Lulu Miller and David Zahl at Meade Hall on March 6. Photo by Amelia Schmid

As consumers, we’re inundated by success. Hit records, blockbuster movies, the latest app.

Creators, on the other hand, are surrounded by failures. They churn out ideas—some brilliant, some bad—and create until something sticks.

How do they find the guts to fail their way to success? Three accomplished local artists are opening up in The Art of Failure, from The Makers Series co-hosted by Christ Episcopal Church, The Garage and New City Arts Initiative.

For musician Devon Sproule, failure is an invitation to stop scrambling so quickly.

“Trying to be successful in the music business is like trying to climb a never-ending ladder,” she says an e-mail. “You’re so busy trying to get to the next rung that it’s really hard to remember to stop and appreciate the view. There are people ahead of you that you assume have a better view, and there are people behind you that want yours. And the whole dang ladder is really rickety.”

She describes the summer of 2007 as a turning point, when she got sick—right before her appearance on the English TV show Later… with Jools Holland. “So even though this show introduced my music to a shitload of people, for the next few years, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I’d been at 100 percent,” she says. “Who knows, maybe my ladder-climbing would have accelerated even more, like it did for those annoyingly cute guys in Vampire Weekend, who also played that night.”

Author, editor and preacher David Zahl sees failure as the gateway to grace.

“The first five years of my own serious creative endeavor was one massive lesson in the pointlessness of trying to ‘get it right,’” he writes. “Failure is seldom something you can go around—you have to go through, even when every fiber of your being is saying not to.”

He describes hosting a conference in Pensacola, Florida, in the early years of his organization, Mockingbird. “We had planned for 200 people to register but only 24 could be bothered. It was super embarrassing, and we almost canceled ahead of time. I wasn’t even there, ’cause my wife had just had a baby. I remember thinking, ‘Maybe it’s time to throw in the towel on this entire project.’”

But that single “failed” conference led to the start of Mockingbird’s quarterly magazine, ongoing video production and best-selling publication.

“Contrary to my default psychology and much to my relief, [failure] has never proved to be the end of the world,” he writes.

Writer, reporter and co-host of NPR’s “Invisibilia,” Lulu Miller’s commitment to art requires falling off that ladder—a lot.

“The first draft of my first radio story was such a mess it was met with the words, ‘You could never make it in a newsroom,’” she writes. “I still remember the tears falling onto the script.”

Now, she seeks to understand why things fail. She draws a parallel to parkour, the sport of running, jumping and climbing around obstacles. “I want to try to become that fluid, that artful, that beautiful as I recalibrate a story to the edits and life thrown my way,” says Miller. “I want to be that reactive, that responsive to failure. I’m not there yet, but, man, am I trying. Every day.”

The gifts of failure are not reserved exclusively for artists. “All of us will make mistakes,” Miller says. “In life. In craft. In policy. If we can open our ears to hear why people are angry, bored, confused, not moved, then we can hear the path to making ourselves, our town and our work better. As if the negative imprint of failure is the blueprint for how to succeed.”

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