Gene Luen Yang

Failure Can Be Fruitful

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Gene Luen Yang in classroom teaching.

Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang. Photo by Briana Loewinsohn

In 2006, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese became the first graphic novel to become a National Book Award finalist and to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award. According to Yang, however, his next project was less successful. He and his collaborator, Lark Pien, spent several years in rewrite mode after his editor broke the news that the nearly finished comic simply wasn’t good enough to publish. Yang pushed through, however, and since then, has garnered a second National Book Award nomination for the two-volume Boxers & Saints (which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize) and developed the graphic novel iteration of Nickelodeon’s popular cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, among other projects. Yang was also a featured speaker at the 2014 National Book Festival Gala, where he spoke about how the fear of failure is a stumbling block to telling more diverse stories.

Yang, who had aspired to work in comics since grade school, also teaches creative writing at Hamline University. In his own words, here’s Yang on how his definition of success has evolved over the years, and what Spiderman taught him about failure.

How to Define Success and Failure
There’s a certain definition of artistic success where you’re doing something that’s never been done before, or pushing a medium in a way that it’s never been pushed. And when you do that, inevitably, you’re going to hit failure because the reason why it’s never been pushed that way is because it’s a bad way to push it. But you’ll never find out until you do it. So you have to give yourself the freedom to do that. I’m a firm believer that you should feel as free as you want to be in that first draft—free to fall on your face. If you feel like you need to get a perfect first draft out, you will never take risks and you’ll never experiment.

I think there are two levels on which failure operates. There’s the artistic level and the more practical level, and you can fail in one way without failing in the other. I think that the easiest way of defining failure in terms of money is whether or not you break even. But you can have a book that doesn’t break even at all that’s still successful as a piece of art. Success in terms of a piece of art, I think, is to make a comic that gets the reader to the last page. But if you’re doing something new and different that maybe has never been done before within the medium, I think that would be a success as well.

I always hope that it’ll break even for somebody, either my publisher or me or both. I really think it’s like a marriage: in the beginning you’re in this honeymoon phase and you think it’s awesome, like, “This will be the best book I’ve ever done.” And then somewhere along the [process] I feel so close to the project that I’m lost and I can’t really tell if it’s good or bad. At that point, I have to push through to the end or I would never finish a book.

How Success Can Change with Age
When you’re working in a medium that was once on the brink of extinction, you cannot define success in terms of money—because there is no money. You’re going in for other reasons. If you had asked me at the very beginning, when I started making comics as an adult, what success would be, it would just be simply to tell a story that is compelling enough to get the reader from the first page to the last, where the reader wants to find out what happens at the end.

Now that I have responsibilities that I didn’t have when I was in my 20s—I didn’t have kids that I have to put through school and that I have to feed—I feel like money has to [be] part of the equation. Even if you don’t want it to be, the financial aspect is still there. And it’s crappy because even now, even though comics are so much more popular than they were in the ‘90s, even though graphic novels are this big thing within the American book market, they’re still kind of a crappy way of making money. If you really want to make money, this is not the way to go.

Draft drawings of a graphic novel.

Draft panels from Gene Luen Yang's Boxers & Saints. Photo by Gene Luen Yang

 

On Knowing When to Trash It
I have a group of beta readers that I rely on. They’re made up of friends and family and my editors, and I take their feedback very seriously. If they tell me something is not working, if a lot of them tell me something is not working, then I’ll listen.

Whether or not it’s time for edits or the trash can, between those two choices, I think my bias is always toward edits. I’m an outliner, and if I’m able to complete an outline for a project from beginning to end, I feel like it’s almost like a marriage, like I need to see it through. One of us has to be dead before we part ways.

Managing the Fear of Failure
When you’re teaching writing, you become much more conscious of how you yourself deal with fear because you want to make sure you’re not a hypocrite. The thing I tell my students at the beginning of every semester is they have to decide what [project] they want to pursue that semester. Usually they’ll describe two or three to me, and there’s one that they describe very easily and another one that they’re more hesitant about, that you can tell they’re super excited about but also really scared of. That’s always the one I tell them to go for. In my life, with my projects, I try to always do that too now. If I weren’t part of Hamline, I don’t know if I would be doing a nonfiction comic by now. I think I may have just given in to the fear and moved on to something different.

I think ultimately it takes a certain amount of courage to get anything done. Failure is always going to be nipping at your heels [with] every draft that you do, even the final draft. There are going to be pieces that are failures. There are going to be pieces that are not as good as they could be. I think a lot of what it means to be a writer, a lot of what it means to be a creative person, is learning how to confront that and push through it.

I think every person who’s done something creative has felt the fear of failure. If you’ve actually finished something and put it out into the world, especially in the age of the Internet, somebody must have trash-talked you. I think we’ve all had to push through those feelings of inadequacy and those feelings of being a sham and not being up to the task. I think that writing is like a constant wrestling match with self-doubt. You have to be used to it. You have to treat it like a friend. If you don’t figure out how to live with it, you’re going to end up stopping.

Learning about Failure from Spiderman
I think Spiderman is an awesome example. He has a great character arc in which he started off in failure. His whole origin theory centers around the death of his uncle. He had this opportunity to stop his uncle’s killer and he didn’t do it. The very first thing he did as a superhero was fail, so his entire career is built on that one failure. It just shows, I think, that failure can be fruitful. Good things can come out of failure.