Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The F Word

Good morning, dear readers. No, not that F word. This blog isn't about censorship, but rather failure. Facing failure. Oh, great, you're thinking. What an upbeat topic for a summer day. So Ron has written about the h word, humiliation. And all of us throughout the semester have discussed various versions of the C word - crazy, man. All writers are crazy - at times. And all of us have to face failure. I've been mulling about failure because I've been wanting to post about the end of my brother's Everest journey. It turns out that he got two GI infections up there, lost twenty pounds and in the end had to come home and didn't get to make a summit attempt. Since he had a web site/blog that was promoting four charities, his journey was quite public. I've run into people since that seem surprised. He didn't make it? Well, no. People actually die up there, so we're all relieved he made the smart decision to return home safely. You didn't get your novel published? Haven't you been working on for a long time?

Last night on Teri Gross' radio show featuring song writers, someone quoted that Ira Gershwin wrote in isolation because of the "exclusivity of failure." Chew on that for awhile. Some of our failed writings and goals in life are personal and private. And some are not. Soon after my brother returned, he was scheduled to give a talk at his university's alumni weekend. Great, he says to me and my husband. I get to go give my loser speech. I could just picture my brother standing in front of all these guys, holding up his fingers in front of his face in an "L."

John, I said, I think these guys would much rather hear about how one person faced failure when not reaching a goal, then hear about how a successful businessman also climbs the world's tallest mountains, leaving overweight audience members feeling even more like slugs. I know. Easy for me to say. But as hard as it is, I do know after all these years, that I learn more from failure, than success. Maybe just because there is more of it.

Dang. I'm sorry to fall into cliche here, but it is the journey. When I published my novel Free Radical a few years ago, I hate to admit it, but deep down I really thought it might be a hit because I'd worked so many years on it. But the first review from Kirkus was not good. The following ones were quite decent and, though no award winner, the novel ended up doing well. But that first review devastated me for a few days. It's not like I haven't had plenty of reviews all over the spectrum, but for me novel reviews are tougher to take. It's like for a NF book - oh, well, they don't like my subject. And a picture book - the illustrations don't really work.

A supportive writer friend sent me a Rumi quote to buck me up. I wish I had saved it. But it was about the journey, I'm sure. Eventually I recovered and returned to the keyboard.

Earlier in the spring I posted about how Icelanders consider failure the compost for later success. Go throw some vegetable scraps on the pile.

Got any of your own F stories to share?


  1. This is just the post I needed. Truly. Summer always makes me feel like a failure. Too many bright, sunny leisure hours to lie in the hammock and brood about my non-success. Too many days of taking my children to the library, wandering the stacks where no books by me exist and presumably never will because I am "enjoying" summer instead of writing.

    But your brother's story helps me redefine my terms--and cut myself some slack. I'll summit eventually. Even if I don't, there's no need to die trying.

  2. Well said, Christine. Without those packet deadlines, it is harder to make ourselves stick to it, isn't it?

    It's fun to entertain those lovely dreams of success. [I'm sure I'll write a fabulous Newbery acceptance speech!] But the failures give us depth of character, and the "gravitas" for us to give to our written characters. So we persevere, and we keep telling our stories.

  3. This is a beautiful post, Claire. Thank you. Might be worth a lecture sometime...

  4. I found this quote from Editor Wendy Lamb's talk at the 2010 winter residency. “Every book is somewhat a failure. The job is humbling.”

  5. yes, and my wise, old editor told me again and again, a perfect book is in itself an end. If anyone were to write the perfect book we'd never need to write another one. That might be good for Harper Lee, (To Kill a Mockingbird IS a perfect book) but personally I want to keep trying, even if I may never be satisfied. It is the creative nature to keep searching...
    He also warned me time and again of the dangers of becoming successful too fast and too young--but I am way too old and have too many books for that line anymore.

  6. Phew. Don't have to worry about that one either, Lisa. But I do have to worry that I am checking the blog instead of writing.

  7. I'm late with this, but I've been out of town. Re: failure. Being a poet and sending poems out is a wonderful thing to do because 9/10 of all that effort results in failure. Rejections. Scorn. Sarcasm. The first ones sting but pretty soon all I do is shrug and send the poems somewhere else. Also, there's less at stake with poetry or certainly with individual poems. Someone doesn't like it? Just write another one. And it is possible to have that attitude toward novels. One honestly can write a whole book in 3 months: four pages a day. It's like Dickens w/ your writing room as a factory, and that's good in the sense that the mystery of composition is out of the equation. Basically it's just work.