Freelance Writing

2,000 Ways How Not to Make a Lightbulb: Finding Success in Failure

Stories about history fascinate me. It doesn’t matter if they’re creative nonfiction like Edward Rutherford’s Sarum (the Story of Great Britain from how it became an island to the early 1980s), Diana Gabaldon’s historical fiction romance Outlander series, or Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. In movies, too, favorites include National Treasure and The Mummy. At this point you’re wondering, most likely, what do all these have in common (beside historical background) and its this – even in the light of failure the characters find some level of success.

A stand-out for me is in the movie National Treasure, there is a line quoted by Ben Gates (Nicholas Cage) about Thomas Edison. It’s said he failed 2,000 times and when asked about his failures, he replied, “I did not fail. I learned 2,000 ways how NOT to make a lightbulb.” All it takes is one way to make something work.

I began contemplating these elements after I finished licking my wounds when a client cancelled a contract. I suppose I should have been more upset, but somehow it seems more a blessing in disguise and a learning moment of conviction to hone skills and continually improve. So, after some time of getting lost in books and movies, cheering on characters I’ve come to know and love in their trials and tribulations, I decided  I needed a change of pace this month. A fresh look at things.

So, this month, I’m putting on my traveling hat. As the snow falls outside my window and I plan new adventures, I read. Quite on accident, I bought, for the second time, Kostova’s The Historian, admittedly I’d forgotten I’d already read it. But, it’s a funny thing to re-read a story you love, you fall in love with the story all over again.

On this read, I’ve honed in a bit on the locations in which this story takes place. Because I’ve been there. Not in my imagination by the author’s descriptions, but in person. I have quite literally walked in my character’s shoes and if I haven’t visited, I know someone from there – Utrecht, The Netherlands. Check. Oxford and London, England. Check. Slovenia.Check. Sicily. Check. Romania.Check.

Beyond the locations in the story, I find myself reading as a writer, as a history buff, and as a student of life. I catch nuances in the writing and think Oh, I see why she wrote it that way or Ooohh, what would I do in that situation? The perfectionism inspired by the historians and librarians in the book is something to aspire to as well. Would I have noticed that book on top of the bookcase? Most likely. Would I have opened and read the letter? Most likely. Would I have taken copious notes so I could later write the story? Yes.

Finding success in my own failures, I’ve found solace and encouragement in books. It’s the author’s perseverance to write, to see where the character’s lead, and to bask in their triumphs and tribulations. By returning to my beloved books, I am inspiration to push on, to keep going, and to hone and improve my skills so that someday, perhaps, what I write will speak to others like my favorite author’s have spoken to me.


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