Fear of failure is a bitch.
It’s like the bitch god or bitch goddess – depending on your preferred visualization – covered with dark shaggy hair, snarling, holding sway over so many of us. We learn young – especially in this culture – that people can be either winners or losers, and to be a loser – to Fail – is the worst humiliation anyone could endure, a kind of psychic tar-and-feathering that marks us for life.
So we choose what seems like the third option: to fall somewhere in this gray area between that allows us to say: I could be a winner if I applied myself. I just haven’t applied myself. This is a kind of not-being, a not-realizing of dreams and potential, that feels safe and cosy except for the lightning-strikes of yearning ripping through the different chambers of our hearts. What we don’t always realize, at least consciously – because as human beings we are so good at things like ‘rationalization’ and ‘denial’ – is that that 'middle area' is like our own personal cage, if a well-padded one with bars that aren’t always visible behind the floral-patterned wallpaper.
It makes sense, to stay in the cage, from an evolutionary perspective. When the basic appetites of life – be they for food, water, shelter, sex, or really cool high-heeled black boots – weren’t driving us out into the wide, wild world, it made sense to hunker down in the cave and stay quiet so that the predators wouldn’t find and eat us. Now, of course, we hunker down on couches and watch TV, but it’s more or less the same thing. Deep in that reptilian part of our brains we know that Failure will eat us alive.
Becoming a successful writer – and by this I define ‘successful’ as someone who writes publishable fiction, and by this I mean fiction that is skilled and artful enough to create a powerful emotional experience for a reader who is not the writer’s spouse, friend or family member, who doesn’t know or care about the writer at all but would be willing to do something so drastic as to<i> pay money for the privilege of reading her work </i>– is all about writing your way through a succession of big and little failures. There is the failure to sell your work, and the failure to get an agent, but these are capstones: the major reason why a writer fails at either is, ironically, because they haven’t yet failed enough. They haven’t pursued the craft long enough, haven’t written or revised enough, haven’t taken enough chances or gotten enough constructive feedback. They haven’t learned enough.
In short, they haven’t completed enough practice novels. And what is a practice novel but a novel that fails to be good enough to be looked on as anything else?
There is no shame in practice novels, or in realizing that the novel you’ve been trying for so long to sell or win representation for is, in fact, a practice novel -- and it might be time to learn from it, put it away and move on to something new. There’s always the chance that one day you can come back to the practice novel and revise it with enough skill and knowledge and inspiration that it will no longer be a practice novel but a truly good one.
What is required, however, is a long-range view and a cool eye. You need to see your completed novel not as your ‘baby’ but one small part of a much larger whole: your education and growth as a writer.
You need to be cool and dispassionate enough to stand apart from your work and understand it as exactly that – your work.
It is not you.
It is not your ego.
It is this thing you made, and by making it you became a better, more-practiced writer, and now you’re going to make something else and, after that, something else again.
It is not a waste of time and effort because it didn’t get published.
It is practice.
Let me repeat that: it is practice.
You can love and learn your chosen craft all you want, love and learn it obsessively, as indeed you should. But the only way to actually get good at it is by doing it, and doing anything well requires lots and lots of practice. The more you practice, the more experienced you become – and the more distance you put between yourself and all those aspiring writers who will never read or write or fail or practice enough to become truly good, certainly not as good as you know deep down that you yourself will one day be.
In his book OUTLIERS, Malcolm Gladwell presents the argument that the difference between a beginner and someone who is successful at, well, anything, is 10,000 hours – about ten years. When I was a teenager who had just begun to write seriously – that is, with the intention of making it my life’s work – a creative writing instructor told me that the average apprenticeship for a writer was – you guessed it – ten years. (This was the same instructor who told me: “Every time I begin a new semester I ask the class, ‘Who here loves to read?’ Maybe three people will put up their hands. Those are the three people I know will be the best in class.”)
It helped to hear this because from the beginning I assumed that becoming a published novelist was just a matter of work and time. I knew the odds were against me, but also figured that the ‘odds’ failed to take certain things into consideration.
I liked what a film school teacher told a friend of mine: “Everybody tells you that for every job that opens in the film industry, 500 people will apply for it. What they don’t tell you is that out of those 500, 490 will be idiots. The trick is not to be an idiot.”
Whenever I put more hours of writing into whatever novel I was working on, I knew I was that much closer. Whenever I tried and failed to get a novel published, I knew I just wasn’t good enough yet. The key word being ‘yet’. I didn’t blame the marketplace, I didn’t blame the idiocy of whatever agent or editor had just rejected me, I didn’t really blame anyone. I absorbed the rejection as a sign that I was one more ‘no’ closer to my eventual ‘yes’.
I knew I was tackling an enormously difficult goal – selling my work, getting published by a major publisher, having my books in bookstores across the country, even the world – and I had respect for that. If it was easy, everyone and their Aunt Hilda would have a book contract. By loving what you do and learning and doing what you love, by embracing and absorbing and learning from failure, by moving ever forward, you cut yourself apart from the pack.
This is my list of my own ‘failed’ or practice novels:
The first 'book' -- and I use the term loosely -- I ever wrote. I was in fourth grade and I wrote it in longhand in a yellow spiralbound notebook. It wasn’t a novel but a series of anecdotes about my father, ‘Terry’, the beagle he had when he was a boy and their adventures together. The way it came about was this: I wanted a dog and my parents kept refusing me in what I considered a cruel and heartless manner, so to compensate my father would talk about the dog of his own childhood, named Nipper.
I showed the work-in-progress to my teacher, who had me read it to the class. The kids loved it and wanted more. It was my taste of commercial success. It was heady stuff indeed. From that point on, I had an identity within the classroom, and then the school, and then the community, as a writer and storyteller.
I’ll be honest. I continued to work on Nipper and I wrote many other things, but it wasn't for the love of the exercise. At that point, I didn't want to be a writer when I grew up; I wanted to be a vet or an actress on a soap opera (SANTA BARBARA was to have a big impact on me, and more importantly on my hair, which I grew long like Robin Wright's, the young actress who played Kelly Capwell before she went on to become the Princess Bride and the on-again off-again love of Sean Penn. I still love her. But I digress). I wrote because for whatever strange mishmash of genetic, psychological and environmental reasons, writing came easily to me.
I did it for attention and praise.
I was your basic eight-year-old hack.
SECRETS OF THE CRYSTAL UNICORN
Sixth grade. Don’t remember much about this manuscript except that I typed it out on a little white electric Olympia typewriter, which would be my main writing instrument for many years and help me acquire a typing speed so impressive I would become the county typing champion for several years straight (while barely managing to pass the subject itself, since I would spend class typing poems instead of the deathly tedious assignments).
I assume from the title that influences at the time included Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, etcetera. Unlike Nipper, this book had an actual plot. I just can’t remember what it was.
This book was to be a pivotal experience for me. I was twelve or thirteen when I wrote it, around the time I was beginning to make 'developing a body of fiction' my life's mission statement. KELLY’S GHOST, about a young girl who moves to a new town and realizes that her house contains the ghost of another young girl who is endangering her younger sister, was a breakthrough in my understanding of both plot and characterization. By this point I had also developed a lyrical writing style.
This book almost – almost – got published. It kicked around Canadian publishing houses for a while, I received my first lessons in constructive feedback and began to learn about the process of revision. When I was sixteen I met with an editor who enthusiastically championed it inside her publishing house only to get shot down by the powers (continued at www.justineleemusk.wordpress.com)