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Author Sarah Lewis sets failure as the agenda at Sundance

It is now tradition that, in the heart of January, Sundance Film Festival descends upon Park City as its own ball drop for Hollywood. For just ten days, the pop-up universe of film’s most passionate creatives radiates its resolutions for better filmmaking and more diverse stories in the year ahead.

Sarah Lewis, author of the upcoming book THE RISE, leads panel including Robert Redford, Dave Eggers, and Jill Sollowat at Sundance
Photo by Vendela Vida, courtesy of Sarah Lewis

On the heels of a year that was decorated with standout storytelling, one that was particularly landmark for independent narrative and documentary films, there was a touch of triumph that traveled through the extended week of programs and screenings. Not even box office bombs could din the energy of 2013’s feature films that consistently provided audiences reprieve and reflection. So there is something to note that, following a year where projects including Blue Jasmine, 20 Feet from Stardom, and Fruitvale Station first bloomed at Sundance, the summit presented “Free Fail,” a series of day-long programs to celebrate failure.

From learning to cook five-star cuisine from a 15 year-old wunderkind, to group lessons on mastering high kicks like a Rockette, “Free Fail” highlighted an unsung movement in creativity--botches, defeats and stalemates.

Headlining the day was a panel moderated by art scholar Sarah Lewis whose debut book The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery offers a nod to creativity’s undecorated, yet constant companion. Joined by Sundance Institute founder and president Robert Redford, author Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), creative neurology expert Charles J. Limb, MD, writer/director Jill Soloway (Six Feet Under and United States of Tara), and Chris Stone, president of Open Society Foundations, Lewis guided thoughts on those moments more often offered mockery or veiling than earnest reflection.

Redford, whose long-time advocacy for the creative process permeates the energy of Sundance, set the ground for an introspective conversation with a challenge to common definition of failure. “...I decided that I didn’t like the description of the word ‘failure.’ I thought it was narrow and limited. But it is seen to be the thing we all have to live by. Would it be possible to maybe contribute to redefining that word? Particularly for artists.”

Lewis’ book uncovers the nature of failure, uncovering paths to reinterpretation of the term through stories that range from Michelangelo’s lacking perception of his own work in painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, to the change in affect of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s cadence once he surmounted his fear of death. Lewis believes that failure is not the converse to success, but rather a current through which all achievement manifests, or not.

Overall, the conversation hit on what differentiates Sundance from other festivals, one packaged with a personalized view of what it means to be an artist. Sundance has heralded independent projects that have gone on to be box office disappointments since a time when marginal box office breakeven was not even a possibility for independents. So perhaps, on the heels of a year that seemed to be tailored for independent critical and financial success, it does make sense that the summit honor the fundamentals of its craft.

Dr. Limb, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, sees creativity and failure on a grander level. “My work in studying the neuroscience of creativity has really been all about understanding that we will never answer it. I know I will never succeed. How can you possibly study the neuroscience of creativity and get to the end of it? Can’t be done.”

But how does one fail?

The question from an audience member was posed. “Can you tell us your secrets about how to turn adversity into advantage?”

For author Lewis, this was heart of an engaging roundtable. In recapping the afternoon, she shared, “Robert Redford, Chris Stone, and Jill Soloway led the answer session with these tips: create safe spaces for creative play failure, have what Dave Eggers called an inner editor as well as an inner optimist, be willing to surrender for fortitude and more. It's important not to romanticize failure. But once endured, there are gains that can come no other way."

Given her experience on the faculty at Yale University, Lewis’ book really speaks to the future of the creative industry. As content is becoming more central to business marketing, the idea of success as an artist is changing. In a world where sponsored web shorts and creative events are increasing in influence for brands, the idea of “big” and “artistic voice” are redeveloping. And all the while, the word “innovation” has stepped beyond overexposure, and box office growth through increased projects has usurped meaningful review of audience demand and impacting filmmaking. What is happening in the film industry is indicative of a larger business ecosystem, and Lewis’ book is a substantive framework for many of challenges highlighted in Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese’s respective remarks on the future of film.

As much as society is mulling around some kind of acknowledgement of failure, there’s something to be said of Lewis, a Harvard, Oxford and Yale-educated scholar, launching failure movement. Perhaps no one better to push audiences for a thoughtful ear, and no better community than creatives to stir the pot. The biggest trend for 2014 may be failure, but as Redford stated, not necessarily by standard definition.

Lewis is looking forward to the year ahead for her debut work, a year already filled with stops at more unexpected forums for uncommon conversation. Her resolution for this year is the success of meaningful failure. She pauses for a moment in the midst of planning a highly anticipated talk at the historic New York Public Library. In her trademark carefree style of confidence, she thinks back to her very warm reception at Sundance, and chalks the early success of her book--one that captures an array of stories that weave together in the form of a movement builder--to a basic truth.

She says, “Conversations about the true path of creativity and mastery is a private one that needs to become more public.”

So simple, and yet surprisingly so unexplored.

On sale in March, Lewis’ The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery is available for pre-order through her website.

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