Award-winning playwright Carlos Murillo describes writing as “a natural instinct that I was born with.” Raised mostly in New York, Murillo studied acting briefly in college followed by a round of internships at several New York City theatres. He describes those early years as “my training ground. Since I didn’t do the MFA or that journey, it was more of an apprenticeship by fire.” Currently based in Chicago, Murillo heads the playwriting program at the Theatre School at DePaul University. In his own words, here’s Murillo on why he believes trial and error is critical to the creative process, and why he prefers to think of failure as “not success.”
On What Defines Success
You have to look at success in different ways. In terms of career trajectory, I think longevity and staying in it for a significant period of time—anyone who does that is, in my mind, successful, whether they’re doing it on the scale of Broadway or even on a community level. That longevity and being able to be vital and creatively alive over a long stretch of time is very important as a measure.
Project to project, I tend to think of success from an internal standpoint as, “Does what I make approach what I had envisioned for it? Does it come close to it?” And it never quite does, I don’t think.
There’s a lot of failure built into the process of making something. If, once it’s out and ready for public consumption, it approaches or just brushes what I think its possibilities might have been when I started, then I feel like that is success. Also, there have been a handful of times in my career where somebody has come up to me months later or years later and said, “You know that play I saw of yours? I had a dream about it.” That, to me, has always been a great measure of success because I feel like somehow the work really penetrated in a very deep way, where it’s become part of a subconscious life of the person who experienced it.
Failure, “Not Success,” and Trial and Error
I think failure is such a tricky word. I think there’s success and not success. When you’re working on a piece, at least when I’m working on a piece, 90 percent of what I write does not end up in the final play. There’s a ton of material that is locked away in boxes that are attempts at scenes, attempts at trying to massage out an idea, attempts at different versions of scenes to really get what I’m going for. There’s one play I wrote where there were 32 different versions of one particular scene. To me, that was a very exciting process, because each version failed, yes, because it didn’t do what I ultimately wanted it to do. But once I had gone through the process, I was able to synthesize everything that I learned from each of those and write what turned out to be a pretty good version of the scene. So I feel like [trial and error] is an intrinsic part of the process, and I think failure is such a pejorative way of looking at it. I like to think of it more as a “not success,” or attempts to get closer to what it is that I’m after.
I’m working on a new play and I wake up in the morning, and I’m like, “God, I don’t know if this is anything.” I recognize I’m in a certain stage in the process of writing this play where things are a little difficult, and I can’t quite see the full picture, and I’m not quite grasping a form yet. But I know that I have to go through this process in order to break through to the other side. Sometimes it requires taking a walk. Sometimes it requires spending a couple of days doing something else. Sometimes it requires saying, “Okay. I’m going to give myself permission to write really badly for a while.”
The Transformative Power of Failure
I think you can either be crushed by failure and do something else, or allow it to make you more resilient. There’s a play I wrote 15 years ago that had a lot of buzz when it was floating around in literary offices, and its first production ended up at a smaller alternative theatre. It was a very, very, very difficult process, because I felt like I had a lot of stake and skin in that play, and it didn’t get the bigger production that I had hoped it would get. That sort of knocked me out for a couple years. I was a little bit devastated by that, and it was difficult to really commit to the next thing that I was writing. I was also a lot younger, so I had less perspective in terms of the long-term picture.
I got out of my funk about a year later and started working in a totally different way than I had previously, and it sustained me over I think three or four plays. It resulted in a completely different approach to writing, a different kind of stylistic approach, and a completely different form. It was almost like I became a different writer. If that initial process had gone really well, would my writing have taken the direction that it took in the subsequent years when I was coming out of a despairing moment, where I felt like I had to reinvent myself and rethink my approach to my writing and my work? Or would I have tried to repeat myself, or kind of do the same thing, or build on what was successful about that particular project? So I think failure helps you with the idea that you have to reinvent yourself in a situation where something doesn’t go the way that you thought it should or would. You have to rethink what your point of view is, what your starting points are, what the nature of your work is.
Teaching the Importance of Failure (or “Not Success”)
A student will bring in 10 pages, and nine-and-a-half may not be very good. But there’s that one moment, or that set of three or four lines, or that one gesture that’s implied in a stage direction, or one turn of phrase, or one moment that feels like, “Let’s pick at that and grow that moment.” I’ve seen many plays emerge from moments like that, where a student is working on something and there’s a little seedling of an idea, or a little seedling of something that’s true or resonant in a piece of work, and suddenly that’s the key or the entry into something. They have to embrace moments where things aren’t working and where they can’t quite see the full picture or where they’re confused about where the story’s going, but at the same time have the will and energy to plow through and see where they can go with it.
I think it’s the hardest thing to teach, that within each thing you’re creating, no matter how you feel like you’re failing within that particular exercise or that particular framework of what you’re working on, that there’s something in there that’s opening something up in you. That’s a very hard thing to teach, but I think it’s also something that is incredibly valuable, not only in artistic creation, but in all endeavors that involve some level of creativity.
This article originally appeared in the NEA Arts Magazine. For more about the importance of failure, risk and experimentation, go here.