Writing and Failure

As I go about the task of trying to find an agent for my novel I have been thinking a lot about failure. I have been working hard researching agents, reading books that agents I seem to like have represented and writing and re-writing my query letter. I know that the vast majority of agents I query will not accept my novel for representation. That is not being negative; it’s the fact of being a writer.

I read recently that for every 100 submissions a writer makes she can expect to have one acceptance. (I can’t remember where I read this if you do please send me an email and I will update.) Those are pretty crappy odds. And yet, here I am, spending many hours submitting my work to contests, magazines, journals and agents. Why would someone put themselves through hours of hard work to face constant rejection and failure?

It’s not an easy question to answer and I suppose many writers have their own answers. I suppose people who are successful don’t always understand the mind of artists who continue to create despite the foreknowledge that the chances of “the big break” are slim. And yet we persist.

A few years ago in my teaching job, I heard a student excitedly say to a co-worker, “I have finally decided what I want to study in college. I want to be a writer.” To which the teacher replied, “Oh, honey, you don’t want to be a writer. You’ll be living in your parents’ basement at forty.” In many ways she was right. I know writers who are adults (some over forty) and still living with their parents. I know writers who drive beaters for cars. I know writers who clean houses, do construction jobs, drive for Uber, wait tables and, like me, teach to put food on the table. I have made decisions and turned down promising opportunities because they would get in the way of my writing. Some of my personal relationships have suffered because of the time I devote to my writing. You think I would have hit the big time by now (or come to my senses.) I have not. There is a chance, a good one at that, that the novels, short stories, plays and poems I have written will never be published.

I guess my dogged persistence in failure can be boiled down to the way writing makes me feel. When I am writing—even the editing and revising part of writing—the entire world just slips away. Often times I sit down at my desk in the early morning and eight hours later feel like I just sat down. A full day of writing—even a bad day of writing where nothing much gets done—feels like just an hour or so. I rise from my computer refreshed and energetic. Perhaps this is what athletes experience when they discuss peak experience. I believe very much that what I experience is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “Flow.” (I recommend his Ted talk “Flow, the Secret to Happiness.”)

Sure, I’d like one of my novels to be on the New York Times Best Seller List. I’d like to see one of my plays produced by a major theater. I’d love to go on a nation-wide book tour. Maybe that is what keeps some writers writing; the hope of eventual financial success. And what artist doesn’t want that? I also want to be able to tell a good story, one that will make people enjoy the experience of reading my work and think about life in a different way. Of course, I want to be a good writer. I want my craft to be skilled. But most importantly, I want to feel alive, energized and engaged in life. Csikszentmihalyi writes, “The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” I think writing is worth the risk of failure.

I have a response for the student who wants to study creative writing. Yes, you might actually still be living with your parents when you are forty years old. But unlike other people, you will have created and those acts of creation might make you feel fully engaged in your life. You’ll know what it feels to feel connected with your inner creative being. You’ll have peak experiences and feel fully alive. You will never wonder about what you could have accomplished. Yes, you’ll fail and you’ll fail a lot. But in a weird sort of way, that only a writer can understand, you’ll be happy. You will be living your authentic life. I think it’s worth all the failure.

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