Fail Better: Three Writers on Rising Again and Again

Lisa Taddeo, Colum McCann, and Tom Perrotta. Photo by Mark Hedden.

By Kaitlyn Malixi

The sky was a soft gray, with a gentle breeze teasing of a pending rain shower as authors Colum McCann, Tom Perrotta, and Lisa Taddeo took the stage. Personally unknown to one another, the authors dove into the opportunity to introduce themselves, their craft, and most intimately, their failures to one another and the audience.  

Taddeo told of her first foray into writing—years before publishing her immersive, ambitious nonfiction book Three Women—as a journalist for GOLF magazine. She knew nothing about golf but nailed the interview because she had, comically, read some articles in a magazine about golf. She would later reach out to an editor at Esquire and land a piece inspired by Heath Ledger’s death. From that, she learned a valuable lesson, which she would carry through to her present work: Be respectful and beautiful in telling someone’s life or story. 

McCann followed with his own writer origin story, in which his father wrote books about soccer (or “football,” in McCann’s light brogue). An early schoolteacher of McCann’s rewarded the class on Fridays by reading segments of his father’s books. When a classmate jumped up and cheered at the end of one of these stories, McCann realized the power of writing—the marriage of fiction and reality. Echoing Taddeo’s sentiments, he explained his path to understanding a writer’s mission: “Make it beautiful. Make it as honest as you possibly can.” Now McCann’s own son is a reader of his stories, and the cycle continues. 

Perrotta, on his inherent realization that writing was his career path, recognized that writers were “a cool thing to be.” He attended an MFA program at Syracuse University, where he studied Tobias Wolff. Unable to establish a name with his work after graduating, he took other writing jobs to survive, including ghostwriting a teen horror novel. His work ethic in writing for someone else sparked a discipline for his own writing, inspiring him to dedicate an equal amount of time to building his own body of work. 

From these backstories, the trio segued into the topic of failure. “Failure is vivifying,” as McCann told students during his visit yesterday to Key West High School. Quoting Samuel Beckett from memory, he said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Taddeo and Perrotta agreed that resilience is key. Rejection letters, harsh notes from editors, and bad reviews exacerbated some self-doubt for all three of these writers. But ultimately, returning to the proverbial drawing board, or typewriter, was essential. Perrotta, joking but not joking about his “bottomless” desire for praise, expressed gratitude to his wife for knowing he always wants to be told she loves his work. 

Just as curling up with a good book and a cup of tea on a rainy day can bring comfort, there was an ease and coziness to the conversation. During the Q&A that followed, McCann returned to writing advice from Beckett: “Find a structure to accommodate the mess.” As the drizzle began to quicken outside the main stage tent, the authors summed up the work of writing, and of life: In every failure, there is a chance for growth, and sometimes the mess is necessary. Shortly following the talk, the sky clearing, a rainbow emerged above the tent. The heavens were pleased with this conclusion. 

Kaitlin Malixi is a high school English teacher and former youth librarian. When her nose is not stuck in a book, she loves exploration and travel.

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