When Creative Projects Fail: Some Thoughts

14 June 2023


Before I went to Bolivia last August to work on a few creative projects, I stapled two sheets of paper to my Field Notes journal. On them I wrote two lists: a list of “rules” that I imposed on myself during the trip and a list of “aims” to remind me of my goals. Each morning and night, I consulted these lists as a way to stay focused on my work and evaluate how well I had been doing.

One of my projects took me to an Andean town called Quillacollo. It involved taking photographs of the “folkloric” and “indigenous” costumes worn by dancers and musicians during the little-known Fiesta of the Virgin of Urkupiña, which is held in Quillacollo every August.

I envisioned the project to be an ethnographic study of costumes, much like Alys Tomlinson’s book Gli Isolani. When I returned from Bolivia, I would compile the images into a photobook and try to crowdfund it.

But the project fell apart within a matter of hours of the festival beginning.

There are many reasons why this project failed, which is a discussion for another time.

But when I realized the project would fail, I left the festival and walked up a mountain, where I found a shaman. The shaman—and my photograph of him—would set in motion a new mission during my time in Quillacollo.

Back in my hotel room, after my nightly ritual of emailing photographs from my day to a pop-up newsletter called 30 Days in the Andes, a strange thing happened.

I received an email from a longtime friend of the family whose daughter was battling a brain tumor. She saw the photo of the shaman and asked if I would perform a ceremony with a shaman for her daughter. I recount this story in my forthcoming book The Hill of the Skull, but the experience has left a profound impact on me beyond the story itself.

You could say that, when my project fell apart, I had failed. But maybe I hadn’t, completely.

I wonder if failure is but the universe telling us to look elsewhere for whatever it is we’re seeking, to turn over new stones in our quest. Failure gives us an opportunity to reconsider things.

The author Ray Bradbury said this about failure: “To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then.” I love this idea because it suggests that, until we are completely defeated, we can never fail in this experiment we call life. Failure is for the dead, not the living.

And failure certainly is not for the creative person.

A creative project benefits from having an aim. Creative people and their projects benefit from having north stars that illuminate their paths. An aim is the bedrock of any creative project. It is a creative project’s hypothesis.

From there, however, creative projects can—and often do—go haywire. They shift, change, and morph. New inputs and evidence force the intrepid creator to go in different directions, follow new leads, and abandon their old hypotheses and aims when they are no longer tenable. Here I’m reminded that hypothesis literally means “placed under” or “foundation.”

If Bradbury is right, that creativity is a moving process of discovery, then the creative person can never fail.

In Bolivia, I didn’t fail. I was given a new mission.