Notes from the Drunken Editor: How To Fail and Why You Should Keep Failing
Let's talk about failure.
Failure is, after all, the great unmentionable. We pay no attention to failure until we see some cultural or corporate Goliath fall to its knees. Enron goes down, we pay attention. The United States invades Iraq — and things go a little wrong — sure, we're watching. Critics of the West's celebrity culture often point out how the media sensationalizes the trivial and, by omission, trivializes what is of true importance.
But the problem with a celebrity culture is not just that what's important gets overlooked. In a world where success stories are emphasized at the cost of all else, we are discouraged from thinking about all the stories of failure. Hero worship is easier when our heroes seem truly alien to us, better-looking, more talented, and hey, maybe they're even predestined to succeed. If they fail, either it's just a minor setback, like Brad Pitt's truly bizarre appearance in a recent Chanel no 5 ad, or it's a real tragedy — like the legal problems that made Michael Jackson's final years so fascinating and cringe-worthy.
Failing isn't usually a spectacle. It is a mundane, annoying, disheartening thing that we try to overcome by focusing on the good things in life. Yet our failures make us. Everyone, I'm sure, had many awkward moments in high school, and before that — even in kindergarten. Then some of us went to college and had further stretches of disappointments, while others got jobs and felt frustrated when life didn't work out as we'd hoped. Maybe it'll get better. Maybe we'll make it eventually.
"The last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world." — Leonard Cohen
The day-to-day is filled with failures, from not catching the right train to saying something you thought would be funny but ended up being goddamned friggin' gahhh so stupid ("Why why why did I say that? I was doing so well…"), to seeing a relationship collapse for the pettiest reasons. We brush these things aside and try again. And we're right to do so, to an extent. The real pity is not being able to see failure for what it is: the world forcing you to accept, once again, that it is not subject to your whims.
Writing, like acting and being in a band and, why not, being a venture capitalist or opening a private dental health practice, is a world of failures. Most books fail, most actors get nowhere, most bands end up being footnotes in the history of a particular city's Almanac of Nobodies. A book that sells a million copies is great news, not just for its author, but for the authors that can now be given a chance because the lucky publisher can take some risks again — but odds are you won't hear much about those other authors. Any inspiring success story conceals the amount of screwing up and throwing in the towel that goes into making any industry an industry. There are the giants who succeeded, and the innumerable failures we've already forgotten, if we ever knew about them.
The fear of failure can be totally crippling. I know this from my own life, and I suppose it must affect the great majority of people in our society. We don't want to be associated with a doomed project, or a catastrophic decision. Recently, through a combination of health problems (my short-term memory has been strongly affected by a medical treatment) and bad organization, I failed to do a couple of things that I would ordinarily have had no problem getting done. The result was that one of the authors that I've been working with was left feeling clueless for a whole week about what was going on, and I hadn't even realized that there was a problem at all; another author had to write to ask me about things I was meant to have dealt with by then. To me, these felt like overwhelming and shameful failures. The insecurities that come with holding any professional position started creeping into my thoughts: What if I'm just not cut out for dealing with this stuff? What if I let more people down? Okay, there are medical reasons that can explain a lot of it, but what's that got to do with other people? Why should they care? And so forth.
I've met dozens of aspiring writers who have felt so discouraged by rejected submissions, or bad reviews, or snide comments in workshops, that they were tempted to pack it in. You send your story to a paying, respectable publication, and they reject it — well, fine, it's a tough market. But you try a little unknown publication that takes six months to get back to you with a rejection — and suddenly that's painful. They can't possibly receive that many submissions. They kept you in suspense for six months, without even allowing multiple subs, and all you get back in a two-line email saying "Thank your for your submission. We have read it carefully and we regret to tell you we won't be taking it on at this time." It feels personal. You've seen what they publish; it's not that good. Surely your story was better than what they usually get.
A bad review, too, can be discouraging. I'm fortunate, I think, in never having taken unflattering reviews very seriously. I know authors who get truly heartbroken when a publicly available review trashes their book. Still, even I find it a bit disheartening when a reviewer gets my book flat-out wrong. Here's an example that has stuck in my mind because of its sheer strangeness — the reviewer is talking about me:
He was a pyromaniac suffering from depression, psychosis, and describes himself as a sociopath. After reading further, though, I do wonder if his social isolation stems more from Asperger's Syndrome than being a sociopath. Not only do I not know the author, but I'm hardly qualified to diagnose such a thing.
Anyone who has met me will be sure to tell you some things that are "wrong" with me, but I've never been called a pyromaniac before, and the idea that I'd have Asperger's Syndrome just strikes me as beautifully surreal. The pyromania accusation comes, I think, from a single paragraph in my memoir in which I say I used to burn my toy soldiers as a boy. As for the sociopathy thing, the reviewer seems to take a moment of adolescent self-evaluation that I mention in the book as my actual impression of what I am. I never replied to the review (Pro tip: Don't reply to reviewers. It doesn't end well!) and it's insignificant anyway. The point is that upon reading those lines, I wondered what the hell I'd done wrong. How on earth had such a misreading happened? And since you don't just go around telling your readers that they've read you wrong — especially when they were given a review copy — I was merely left puzzled, and eventually pretty amused. These are easy things to get over when the skin has thickened a bit. (The review also contains the following highly ambiguous warning: "This book contains a scene depicting child molestation and one line about oral sex with a prostitute (not in the same scene)." It seems to me to imply I was involved in those acts, and nobody who hasn't read the book would know otherwise. Again, I cringed and had to move on.)
There are marketing failures, too — ads that were so ill-judged that you're left wondering what the hell anyone in that company was thinking. Products that just make no sense. Movies that flopped because they were, frankly, awful. If you haven't seen American Psycho II, with Mila Kunis… don't. It's a college slasher film. What were those people injecting into their arms every twenty minutes when they thought, screw it, let's make that film?
"Failure is not fatal; victory is not success." — Tony Richardson, or Winston Churchill; the internet failed to make that clear
Now here's the thing about failure. We're taught to avoid it. We're encouraged to focus on the bestsellers, the blockbuster summer hits, the nauseatingly attractive (and immediately objectified) woman who's just trying to do her job at the counter, the nauseatingly wealthy entrepreneur who seems to get it right every time. The knee-jerk response to success seems to be admiration and hagiography. Hollywood endings either make failure beautifully tragic, or they just focus on everything working out; and even though we are all equipped with facile words with which to brush off the trans-fatty pleasures of a good Hollywood ending, we're simply more vulnerable than we pretend. I'm not fooled, we say, and so we remain in a dull thrall to the big media-privileged news stories, the best-of lists, and the Oscars.
In the publishing world, failure is simply a given, and the great danger is thinking you're the exception. You may very well be the exception. It's absolutely possible that your book will make it big. But why strive for that? It's not just a moral question, it's an invitation to rigorous self-questioning. Forget the obvious objections to jumping on bandwagons and trying to write for a specific market just because you know your chances are much better there (for the record, some obvious objections include the fickleness and unpredictability of the market, the triteness of derivative works, and the whole "what is art even worth to you?" debate). It's about preparing yourself to succeed, and getting crushed by your own self-loathing when you don't make it. You thought you had a real chance, and it all went wrong.
It's about appearing sensible and realistic to a potential publisher. If you tell them you think they'll love your book because it's sure to be a hit, you come across as charmingly deluded and a potential nightmare later on. Resentful authors like to blame their failures on others, including their publishers. If an editor gets a creepy vibe from you, your odds are low.
It's also about rethinking the part that writing plays in your life. If you've just finished your first novel, and you start sending it all over the place without really thinking about what parts of it still need work, you're stunting your own growth. If you get a rejection letter, it's certainly imaginable that the editor didn't "get" what you were up to, but the fact is that your manuscript is probably not as good as it could be. A failure to take a break and return to the book later on can be seriously debilitating. If you're writing because you want to be a writer, nobody will stop you, but you could end up slowing down your progress. The fear that you might not be good enough is a helpful fear if it doesn't overwhelm you.
You're not necessarily better off as a perfectionist — there is no point romanticizing the obsessive desire to make things perfect. It often betrays an enormous fear of failing. Instead, you can just be calm. Your story got rejected? Fine. What was wrong with it? What didn't work? The editor didn't leave any helpful feedback, fine. Ask around. Try to read this story while pretending you are another person, maybe someone who never much liked you. What would they pick out as flaws in your story? Are they wrong? Possibly. Is it worth changing? Give it a try.
Ten submissions and ten rejections isn't something that needs to be romanticized either. A hundred rejections is a battle scar, sure, but if you're proudly counting your rejection slips, consider the idea that you might not actually be handling the idea of failure as well as you think. Five rejected manuscripts and five serious manuscript-autopsies will serve you far better. Learn why you fail before you start counting your failures like trophies.
One of the most memorable stories I've ever heard came from my father, whom I only got to know properly in my mid-teens. When he was a kid, he tried to impress a girl by putting a live bumblebee in his mouth. It didn't end well. That kind of Big Stupid Mistake is really the most helpful kind of failure, because if it was your mistake, then you needed to learn the lessons it taught you. No, it's not just that you shouldn't keep a bumblebee in your mouth — it's that of all the reasons you might wish to keep a bumblebee in your mouth, impressing other people is definitely not a good one.
Draw your own conclusions.
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