Dorothea Brande’s “Formula for Success”: The Will to Fail Revisited

At the onset of this Writer’s March Challenge, I wrote about Dorothea Brande and the “Will to Fail,” a concept based on Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” that seeks to name the human propensity towards self sabotage.   As I explained,

Each person has a dream, a goal, an internal sense of what would make their lives better (their own will to power, so to speak), but each person’s will to power [is] usurped by the stronger will to fail.

selfsabotageyoursuccessMany people have watched Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech, a video I shared and discussed many years ago.  In this speech, Gaiman talks to a group of graduating art students about how to make it as artists in today’s world.  He tells them to always keep in mind what they have at the top of their mountain (their life goal).  Then, when faced with choices on what to do next, he said, keep in mind this mountain and choose options that will take you closer to the top.  And so, put another way, the “Will to Fail” involves all the life choices we make that either take us down or away from our mountains.  It also (perhaps most importantly) asks us to examine all the reasons we stop climbing altogether.

So, what do we do to avoid this “Will to Fail”?  How do we overcome it? In other words, I keep hinting at Brande’s formula for success, but have yet to offer it up.  And so, I offer it now.  As Brande Says,

All that is necessary to break the spell of inertia and frustration is this: Act as if it were impossible to fail.

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Sound Bite Sunday

Guest post by Randi Beck

My current day job involves equal parts mind-numbing monotony (think walking very slowly through a grocery store while using a calculator) and twenty or so Billboard pop songs played on loop (think Maroon 5—all day, every day.) So rather than sink further into a Sisyphisian state of depression, I said screw the no-headphones rule and started downloading podcasts.

It turns out you can find a podcast on pretty much anything, including writing. I have found some to be surprisingly motivating and/or educational. I have also found some to be terrible. So I have weeded through dozens of podcasts to bring you this weekly list of recommended listening, which will heretoafter be known as “Sunday Sound Bites.”

Some of these will focus on craft and productivity, others feature author interviews, and some are just good writerly fun. A few may not be about writing, specifically, but should prove useful in developing your writing habit or motivating you when the going gets tough. I hope you’ll find at least a few that you enjoy. Continue reading

On Daily Habits: Thoughts From Our Challengers

Whenever someone joins this Writer’s March, I ask for an exercise that they’d like to
share.  This year, several responses had less to do about one-time things and more about the daily writing people do to help form good habits.  Reading these changed the way I think about exercises. I always thought they something you did when you were stuck or wanting to get started, something that changed every time.  I hadn’t considered the way we could turn the exercise into something that “unsticks” us on a daily basis.

This morning, as we ate breakfast, Randi told me about how habits are formed.  I’ve written about this before, but I hadn’t thought of how those habits are related to the processes of our brains.  As Randi explained, rather than thinking about the left and right sides of the brain, think instead of the front and back.  The front of the brain processes information that is new.  That new information, if repeated often enough (30 days, ahem!), moves to the back of the brain to form habits.  Once things are habits, they become easier to do because we no longer have to think about doing them.  On Sunday, she’ll offer more insight on this (specifically on how to break the bad habits), so I don’t want to give it all away, but here on Day 3, I thought it would be cool to see the habits that are already in place.  These are things the rest of us might steal either for the entirety of March or just for the day: Continue reading

The Will to Fail


This winter, Randi and I took a road trip from California to Norman, Oklahoma for the holidays.  It’s a long drive, over twenty-four hours, and we spend most of the time reading to each other.  Randi had picked up  Dorothea Brandt’s How to Wake Up and Live: A Formula for Success that Works.  Brandt’s other book, Becoming a Writer, was one of the most influential in Randi’s early writerly development.

Brandt’s book, as it’s subtitle suggests, is a “formula for success.”  In the introduction, she tells us this formula has changed her life then teases the reader with several chapters before she gives said formula away.  At first, I’d been annoyed – why dangle the “secret” over our heads (for it is, indeed, similar to the “secret” in The Secret), but as Randi read onwards, I began to understand.  A formula can only be useful if you have taken the time to understand its parts.  And this formula had one part in particular that needed explaining: it was, as Brandt called it, the “will to fail.”

friedrich-nietzsche-power-quotes-the-world-itself-is-the-will-toThis will to fail concept is a variation on Nietzsche’s “Will to Power,” which my old friend SparkNotes explains as a fundamental part of living, the quest to have and be powerful, a need that is “stronger than the will to survive.”  While this will to power can result in conflict, “Nietzsche is more interested in the sublimated will to power, where people turn their will to power inward and pursue self-mastery rather than mastery over others.”  In other words, it is our desire to be powerful individuals that drives us towarsd self-betterment (or at least this is how I understood it).

Brandt, however, points out that there is something stronger than this “Will to Power” that Nietzsche doesn’t address, and that is the “Will to Fail.”  For pages upon pages, she offers examples of what this will to fail looks like – the person who says they want to travel but blames a lack of money.  The person who wants more from life but is focused on raising a family.  The person who wants to be a writer, but after receiving rejections claims that they’d tried that and the world had dubbed them not good enough.  Each person has a dream, a goal, an internal sense of what would make their lives better (their own will to power, so to speak), but each person’s will to power was usurped by the stronger will to fail.  And so, despite what might seem like success–person A died a beloved member of his community, person B raised three healthy children, person C lived a long, mostly happy life, Brandt argues they fail in their ultimate purpose.

Now, I admit, there is a harshness in Brandt’s observations.  There is, too, a certain privelege that she brings with her as well, and yet, as she described each scenario, I couldn’t help but think of people I knew, each one doing similar things to those in her examples, each wanting but doing little to make changes, each with another reason or rationale for why the changes were impossible.  Each mostly happy and simultaneously dissatisfied with their current state.  Since reading this book, I have come to notice more and more the way my own excuses have become transparent as just that: excuses.

At this point, you may be wondering…This is Day 2 of Writer’s March!?  Why are you talking about failure?   Isn’t this when you would usually inspire us to craft our goals?  To be excited?  But as I think about my own goals for the month, which are still in the formation stage, I can’t help but feel like it is vital that we examine how the will to fail is playing out not just in our daily lives, but in the goals we are setting before us.

So, here on day two, I offer some ideas of self-reflection.  

First, consider the excuses you make for why you don’t write.  Do you recognize them as excuses?  Do you see them as the obstacles they are?  Second, consider your goals so far.  Are we asking enough of ourselves?  Are we asking too much and setting ourselves up for failure?  Are we aware of how capable we truly are in terms of what we can accomplish?

Find some way to offer yourself a reminder and/or clear the obstacles away.  Maybe it is an object or a quote.  Maybe it is a drawing of what these fears look like.  Maybe you hold a ritual and write the excuses on strips of paper, then burn them away.  Whatever you do, I think it is crucial that we face our own will to fail when we set forth on the journey of this month of writing.

…and if you are interested, it might be fun to share them in the comments below.

Then, when you are done, don’t let your meditation on the will to fail become another excuse for why you are not writing.  Get to it.  Tell us how it goes.

Write it!

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Last year, I took part in some writing challenge for March, the name of which escapes me for the moment. I set the “modest” goal for myself of a thousand words a day, for a grand total of thirty-one thousand words. I called this “modest” because I’d easily cleared fifty-two thousand words for NaNoWriMo a few months earlier, during a month which is one day shorter. I put “modest” in quotes because I failed miserably last March. Quite simply, in March I stopped myself from writing anything I didn’t consider meaningful, while in November I let myself fully explore whatever I felt I had to say. In other words, by stopping myself from writing anything that wasn’t “meaningful,” I stopped myself from writing, period.

I feel it’s important that I make it clear the advice I’m about to give is not just meant to help writers better meet some arbitrary word-count goal, it is meant to make them better writers: do not stop yourself from writing. Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to think when they read it, whether you feel you “know enough” about the subject matter to write convincingly or that you know you’ll never be able to publish it. I am a firm believer in writing for the sake of writing and the writer’s right to write for nobody other than him or herself (try saying that five times fast). Anything you write—whether it is suitable for anybody else or not—is a whetstone for further sharpening your craft; practicing dialogue, understanding characters, testing images, whatever you feel your weaknesses may be.

You ever have an idea for a scene you’d like to write, but then stopped yourself because “it’ll never work in this story”? Think character x from story A would be a worthy adversary for character y from story B but don’t want to mix story A with story B? Write it anyways. Here’s a helpful equation:
—————————————x+y=practice writing dialogue.
Maybe there’s a situation you’d like to put a character in just to see how he handles it? Write it, it’ll help you get to know that character better. Want to write a sex scene but feel it’s totally gratuitous? Don’t even worry about justifying it, if it wants to be written, then write it!

Don’t stop yourself from writing because you feel you need to do more research. Let’s say you want to set a story in a cheese factory but don’t know the first thing about making cheese. You will need to do research in order to create a believable environment and believable characters to inhabit it, but don’t let a lack of research keep you from getting whatever wonderful idea that had you wanting to write a story about a cheese factory in the first place down on paper. Write it! Make it up as you go along, and make adjustments as needed when you do get that research done.

Last but certainly not least, do not stop yourself from writing something just because you know you’ll never be able to publish it. You know what I’m talking about: fan fiction. Interesting characters and settings from established books, movies and television shows should spark the imagination, and just because those characters are somebody else’s “intellectual property” doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with them for your own personal use. If you think it would be fun to have Alex from A Clockwork Orange steal the TARDIS, escape to the antebellum south and run afoul of Scarlet O’Hara… WRITE IT! Sure, you’ll almost certainly never acquire the rights to publish it, but that’s not the point, the point is to practice writing. Alex and Scarlet. Just try writing a page or two of that without needing to flex some underutilized imaginative muscle.

So, your writing prompt for today: Alex from A Clockwork Orange steals the TARDIS and takes it to________.

Day 5: Run Toward Confidence (The First of Several “Tuesdays with Nari”)

Yesterday I went on the longest run I’ve gone on for a while. (Using patchy to describe my exercise record for this past winter is optimistic at best.) It hurt. For the last two miles, I was out of energy and out of breath. I had to pause four times to rally my muscular and respiratory systems, each time imagining that my body was a story’s punk villain staring insolently at me as she raised her middle digits. When I got home, I sank down onto the carpeted stairs, chugged water, and felt pathetic. But also accomplished.

This is not me.

This is not me.

After enjoying a snack–which I’d like to say consisted of exquisitely balanced portions of carbs and protein, but was really a Trader Joe’s cinnamon roll slathered with cream cheese frosting–I embarked on the next item on my agenda: three hours of writing. 

I love what my friend Sam wrote about seeing writing as play, as enchantment. But for whatever reason, yesterday’s writing session was for my attention span what the run was for my body–hard work. I’ve been revising a personal essay that’s almost finished, but it’s not there yet. Sentences need to become cleaner and sharper. Sections need to be swapped around for maximum potency. I thought this final drafting process would be easy, but it’s not. And yesterday I had to summon all remaining willpower to keep at it for those three hours. As the minutes ticked by, distractions continued to appear: The couch wasn’t comfortable. The air felt too cold, then too warm. I was thirsty. I satisfied each need as it arose, determined not to let it eclipse my productivity. Although the going was slow, I got through the three hours, at the end feeling mentally hyperventilated. But, again, accomplished.

My point here is not that I’m awesome (though my back is always available for patting–that is, unless you’re creepy). My point is that on the days when writing feels like work, that’s okay. Adjust the thermostat. Kick your roommate/partner/spouse/cat out of the comfiest chair and claim it. Just keep writing.

Recently I read Stephen Koch’s fantastic book The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, and there’s no other book about writing that I’d recommend more. The chapters travel through the writing process, from inception to the final draft. Chapter two, “The Writing Life,” is about becoming a writer by living as a writer. Koch says that any talent a writer has “will go to waste unless it is sustained and strengthened by the nagging, jagged, elusive thing called obsession, that stone in the shoe of your being known as a . . . vocation. Call it dumb persistence. Call it passion. Call it a fire in the belly or the madness of art. It is less the ability to write than the insistence upon writing.” I freely admit that I’m not obsessed with writing. I’m not the crazy wordaholic who sees scribbling in a notebook as her bread and water. At least not now. For me, writing is a choice–in the case of this Writer’s March, a daily choice. And today, day five, I can’t say that my writing is that much more brilliant, but I do feel like more of a writer. After all, as Koch points out, “Productivity is the only path to confidence. . . . Since writing is what generates inspiration–and not the reverse–abundant writing produces abundant inspiration.” So when you don’t feel the enchantment, write your way toward confidence. If you produce writing, you’re a writer.

Or, to speak for myself, the more I write, the more I know I’m a writer.

This is not me either.

This is not me either.

Exercises (No Actual Running Required)

In the spirit of generating writerly confidence, feel welcome to try one (or more) of the following:

  • Pick a phase of your life (high school, for example) and write about how your spent the bulk of your free time. What did you love to do? What images and moments can you recall involving this activity?
  • Write about something that you’ve produced (infuse that last word with whatever meaning you wish).
  • Write a scene that shows you practicing something (an instrument, a sport, a concept like compassion).

Day 1: Three Things to Know About Setting Writing Goals

Oh, man!  You’re here.  I am so excited to see you.  Welcome to Day 1.  Now, Let’s get down to it.  Here’s three things to know about setting and keeping goals:

#1:  Research Shows that Writer’s March is a Good Idea

cue sad attempt at key metaphor...

cue sad attempt at key metaphor…

In 2011, Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychologist from the Dominican University, conducted a study to find out how setting, writing, and communicating goals affected goal outcome.  One hundred and forty-nine educators, artists, vice presidents, bankers, and a slew of other occupations (aged 23-72) from Japan, England, Belgium, India, and the United States were divided into the following 5 groups:

  • Group 1: Participants who did NOT write down their monthly goal (they communicated it verbally)
  • Group 2: Participants who wrote down their monthly goal
  • Group 3: Participants who wrote down their monthly goals AND identified steps to achieve this goal (steps such as daily goals…)
  • Group 4: Participants who wrote down their goals, identified needed steps, AND communicated this information to a friend.
  • Group 5: Participants who wrote down their goals, identified steps, communicated their goals to a friend, AND updated that friend (weekly!) on their progress.

(Did anyone else feel like they were reading a menu from a Vietnamese Pho Restaurant?)  The results?

  1. Group 5 kicked ass.  Why?  Because 76% of its participants were able to achieve their monthly goal (compared to the 41% of Group 1).
  2. Writing friends kick ass.  Its probably not news to you, but when we tell a friend a goal, we are more likely to achieve it.  Perhaps we are afraid of letting the friend down?  Or, perhaps our friends are good at kicking us in the pants.
  3. Writing down your goals (also) kicks ass.  It is important to note that every other group did a whole lot better than Group 1 (the verbal goal communicators).  Writing down those specific goals really does makes a difference.

So its official: this Writer’s March thing is a scientifically-certified* endeavor.  The next time you talk to someone who is not participating, know that YOU are 30% more likely to get more writing done this month than they are.  Feel free to rub this in their faces.

#2:  The “Best” Goals Are Measurable, Attainable, and Meaningful

DSCN2933There are a number of different websites that will give you all kinds of advice on setting goals.  I like the one offered by Moira Allen mostly because it is the most simple:

  1. When setting your goal, be sure it is measurable.  Not sure what yours should be?  Think in numbers:  “I want to write ___ words by the end of the month.”  “I want to write ___ pages every day.”  “I want to write ___ poems/day.”  “I want to write for ___ minutes/day.”  Don’t have a big goal?  Remember that the monthly goal can be the daily act of writing itself.
  2. Break down your goals into attainable steps (daily goals).  In teaching, we call this backwards planning.  In football, they call it making the first down.  Allen points out that “attainability also means recognizing what is physically possible in the world of writing.”  She advocates to be “honest” and “realistic” with yourself.  Thus, if you are not already in the habit of writing daily, perhaps starting with 5 hours/day is a bit much?  Don’t be afraid of starting simple.
  3. Finally, and this is my favorite: the goal should be meaningful.  It sounds straightforward, but believe me, by day 27, sometimes remembering that the task at hand means something is the only thing that gets me through.

#3  We Aren’t so Much Different Than (Pavlov‘s) Dogs

They say that it takes 30 days to build a habit, so go easy on yourself as you work through the month.  For me, the aim of this endeavor is not perfection but the habit forming process.  And so, as we start the March, here’s some tips for building habits:

  • DSCN3925Use a trigger.  Pavlov rang a bell and his dogs salivated.  The bell became synonymous with the approach of food.  Why not use this knowledge to your advantage.  Some people light a candle to signal writing time.  Others drink wine.  Many writers advocate strongly for an egg timer (set it for 15 minutes and go!).  Personally, I like toast and coffee.  Find something you like.  Use the thing to trigger the writing.
  • Write at the same time, in the same place.  Your environment can act as a trigger as well.  Why not use…a desk, a coffee shop, the angle of the sun…to train your psyche.  I’m also a fan of leaving all  non-writing tasks OUT of that space (that goes for you teachers and yer shtinkin’ grading…).
  • Take away temptation.  For writers, the Internet can mean death to your work.  Perhaps you disconnect your Internet (which also might be a trigger!).  Maybe you take a 1-month hiatus from Facebook.  If you are someone who likes to clean instead of write, maybe you clean the house/dishes at night so you can wake up and go right to it.  You know the things that keep you from working (that’s you, TV watchers).  Why not suspend your cable for a month?  Why not turn off those smart phones?  Why not check your email only AFTER you’ve finished with your task.
  • Change the way you think.  I’ve heard it said: avoid saying things like “I should…” or “I have to…” and replace these ticks with phrases like “I get to…” or “I want to…” (as in, “I get to write today” instead of “I have to write today”) I also think we should all eradicate the word “can’t” from our lexicon…  Seriously.  Stop it with the can’t already…

Whatever you do, take control of the goal or the goal will control you (doesn’t that sounds like a final message from GI Joe?)

Ahem, so what now?

If you haven’t yet, you can officially JOIN THE MARCH by clicking HERE, and I’ll add you to the OFFICIAL CHALLENGERS PAGE.  Everyone else: stop reading this, set up your trigger, and go write.

*this statement has not been approved by the FDA, but that doesn’t mean its not true.

March Arrives in T Minus 9 Days and Counting

The month of February is coming to a close, and that means that March is right around the corner.  I am looking forward to warmer days, a spring break visit to California, and this year’s Writer’s March.  I thought that now would be a good time to send out an anticipatory post.  Time to start crafting those writing goals.

For those unfamiliar with A Writer’s March, the idea is simple:  set a writing goal and work every day during the month of March to achieve it. The goal can can be whatever you like–two short stories you’d like to submit to literary magazines, 30 newly drafted poems, 100 revised pages of a novel, seven stellar songs….  The idea here is to think about what you’d like to have completed by the end of the month.  Your goal should challenge , but it should also be do-able.  Even the goal of writing for 20 minutes a day is admirable if that is all you can find.  For me, the importance here is not to exhaust yourself or beat yourself up, but to hold yourself accountable.  You make the promise and then you keep it.  Its as simple as that.  Oh yeah, and I’ll post some things here on the blog–bits of writing advice, prompts, jokes, stories of my own.  You can read the posts, share your own tales and woes, and we’ll go from there.

Why do this?

Today, as I ate tomato soup and leftover naan, I encountered Young-ha Kim’s TED Talk titled “Be an artist, right now!”  Translated from Korean, the main point of Kim’s talk is that we are all born artists and need to embrace art in our life, even when–especially when–it doesn’t seem practical. As he points out, as young children, we draw with crayons on walls, dance and sing in public, play house (aka perform mini-dramas).  We build sandcastles next to waves, not caring that the ocean will soon break the whole thing down.  Why?  Because it is fun.  Because it brings us joy.

“Unfortunately,” Kim points out, “the little artists within us are choked to death before we get to fight against the oppressors of art.  They get trapped in.  That’s our tragedy.” Without art, he explains, our artistic desires reveals itself in dark forms: karaoke bars, crowded clubs, and jealousy.  “We get jealous because we have little artists pent up inside us.”

While Kim’s talk is aimed towards an audience of “non”-artists, I found his message to be inspiring even for those who have more fully dedicated themselves (and their pocket-books) to the craft. I also enjoy his ideal version of the world: a place where someone might be a golfer by day and a writer by night, or a cabby and an actor, a banker and a painter.  For what is art for?

It saves our souls and makes us happy.  It helps us express ourselves and be happy without the help of alcohol or drugs.  So in response to such a pragmatic question [i.e. “What for?’], we need to be bold.  “Well, just for the fun of it.  Sorry for having fun without you.”

This will be a fun month.  Together, we’ll get a lot of words written.  We’ll create.  We’ll let the little artists out for some fresh air.  The weather is going to get warmer, after all.  Why not join in?  (No, really.  Click HERE to join the March…)

Additionally, if anyone is interested in blogging with me this month, please let me know (!