The Secret of Failure

This topic — the secrets we’ve kept during the publishing process — has been difficult for me to sort through, because the entirety of my writing life, from the decision to write in the first place to the selling of my book, is something I’ve always been secretive about.

When I started writing, I was very tentative.  I wrote one scene, then rewrote it hundreds of times, partly because it needed fixing but mostly so I wouldn’t have to write another one.  Did that count as “writing a novel”?  I was pretty sure it didn’t.  So I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it.  Even when I joined a writing group, the other writers were strangers, so it was easy to keep my “writing life” separate from my “real life.”  Other than my husband, no one in my “real life” knew I was, as I put it to myself, “trying to write a novel”.

In the suburban stay-at-home-mom world I inhabited, it was easy to keep that secret, because once your kids are in school, being a stay-at-home mom means living a life in solitary parallel with all the other stay-at-home moms.  Nobody knows what anybody else is doing with those childless hours.  You could be watching soap operas all day, mountain biking, or drinking vodka, and nobody would know.  So if a friend wanted to go for a five-mile hike on a day I’d planned to write, I’d just say I was busy, and no one ever questioned it.  During my low-residency MFA program it got a little trickier, but I made excuses (i.e., lied) about where I’d disappear to for ten days twice a year.  Eventually the cone of secrecy expanded to include my family and one or two very close friends, but even they never knew about the 57 rejections I got for the novel excerpts I submitted to literary magazines.

The reason for all this subterfuge doesn’t reflect terribly well on me.  I was a decent lawyer, and after I left that job I was a reliable carpool driver, room parent, and member of the PTA.  I’d never publicly failed at anything.  I was afraid I would fail at this, and that everyone would know, and that I’d be pitied and humiliated, and my pride couldn’t handle that.  I wasn’t a very good writer at first, and failure was all that was happening.  Better to fail in secret, in the dark, where no one could see.

Eventually, though, I finished a first draft, and I began to tell people, haltingly, that I was “writing a novel”.  The reason for this change of heart isn’t flattering, either.  By completing the draft I crossed an intangible threshold to a place where I knew I’d finish the book, and by then I’d learned from the people in my “writing life” — my MFA teachers and classmates, mostly — that finishing a novel is an achievement in and of itself even if no one ever reads it.  I wasn’t going to fail at that, at least, so there was no harm in telling people I was doing it.

When the book was “done,” and I decided to see if I could find a publisher for it, failure loomed again.  It was one thing to write a novel, and a whole different thing to get that novel into the hands of a traditional, New York-style publisher of the sort I was hoping for.  So I told no one I was on submission.  When people asked, “When can I buy your book?” I’d answer, “I’ll be sure to let you know,” and change the subject.  I wanted to be back in the dark, where my failure would be my secret.

Then I got my book deal.  This was clearly not a failure, so of course I told everyone I knew in both the “writing” and “real” worlds.  When people asked me when they could buy my book, I smiled and said, “next summer.”  It was all hunky dory in my writing life, and the dark, secret place was shut away, gathering dust.

But I’ve done a lot of thinking in the months since I sold my book.  I’m not proud of how I kept my writing life under lockdown all those years, and only talked about it when I’d decided I wasn’t going to fail at it. It was cowardly, and prideful.  Worse, I didn’t understand the most basic thing about being a writer — that it’s really all about failure.  I haven’t met the writer who doesn’t believe she’s fallen short of some bar she’s set for herself, either in her craft or her career or both.  I’m Exhibit A, and I’m not just talking about the 57 rejection letters I got for those excerpts.  I’m talking about the fact that it was only when I realized I was never going to write the book I’d dreamed of writing, nor be the writer I’d hoped to be, that I allowed myself to write the book that was in me — to write no more, and no less, than that book.  Only when I’d accepted this — the ultimate failure — did I become not just someone who was “trying to write a novel”, or even “writing a novel”, but a writer. This metamorphosis happened while I was still in the dark, hiding from failure all by myself, but I only realized its significance recently, when (exposing my cravenness yet again) I could take an honest look at my “writing life” from the safety of relative success.

Hopefully it’s not just because I have a book deal that I can smugly wave my hand and say, “Oh, failure!  All writers fail!  It’s part of the job!”  I’ll find out, though, because there’s plenty of failure yet to come.  The book won’t sell.  It will get bad reviews.  My family and friends will read it and be disappointed it’s not better, and I will know they’re lying when they tell me they loved it.  I’ll get halfway through the next book and it won’t be working, and I’ll have to start over, and when it’s done — once again — it won’t be the book I dreamed of writing.  No publisher will buy it, and my agent will tell me that maybe the next book will be better, so I’ll write it, and again it won’t be the book I imagined; it will simply be the book I had in me at the time, like all the others. Maybe I will publish only one book; maybe I won’t.  Only time will tell.

I won’t be sanguine about any of this.  I will moan and complain and panic, and worry that I’m a terrible writer and everyone else is just now figuring that out, and then beat myself up because I did publish a book after all, and that’s something most writers haven’t done, so I shouldn’t complain.  I just hope that, whatever comes, I have the courage to fail out loud, to everyone in both my “writing life” and my “real life”, instead of scuttling back into the dark, dragging my failures with me, and boarding up the door.  I hope I can summon the courage to accept failure as the writer’s traveling companion, for worse and for better, not just when it calls out directions, but when it reaches over, takes the wheel, and drives me off the road.

Only time will tell.



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After a decade practicing law and another decade raising kids, Heather decided to finally write the novel she'd always talked about writing. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop, all of which helped her stop writing like a lawyer. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband and two teenaged children. When she's not writing she's biking, hiking, neglecting potted plants, and reading books by other people that she wishes she'd written.

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This article has 5 Comments

  1. Heather, your book sounds so interesting and I can’t wait to read it! Ironically, I was born in California and have lived in central Minnesota for most of my life now (the opposite of you.) I’m curious where your summers were spent, and congratulations on your debut novel!

  2. Thank you, Jill! I’m so glad the book sounds interesting to you! We spent our summers on White Earth Lake, which is on the White Earth Indian reservation, up near Waubun (northwest of Bemidji). The lake in my book is a fictionalized version of that lake, though much more remote and isolated even than White Earth is. One of my big worries is that the setting won’t ring true for actual Minnesotans, so I’ll be curious (and nervous) to hear what you think if you do end up reading it.

    1. Hi Heather, My parents live in Detroit Lakes, south of Waubun, so I’m somewhat familiar with that area (I’m about two hours away.)
      Author Mary Kubica was worried whether she’d portray the desolate up-north Minnesota woods in her novel, THE GOOD GIRL, and she did a fantastic job. I’m sure you did too! 🙂

  3. Heather, I loved this line so much I had to tweet it out: “only when I realized I was never going to write the book I’d dreamed of writing, nor be the writer I’d hoped to be, that I allowed myself to write the book that was in me…”

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