categories: Cocktail Hour
I can pinpoint very specifically when I decided to become a writer. I was in eighth grade, just discovering real literature by reading some of the books my parents had on our shelves at home, and I pulled down and tore my way through Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
That’s it, I said to myself afterward. I’m going to be a writer.
Thirty years later, it still gives me a jolt of pleasure to reflect upon the fact that I made that dream come true: I’m a writer. Like most writers, of course, I also have a day job. But I don’t mind that. All I ever wanted to do was write, and I’m still writing to this day. Even better, I can now point to a small section on my bookshelf that holds books written by me.
Most everything else I predicted or dreamed of in eighth grade hasn’t come true, and what strikes me now even about my one successful dream was how wrong I had it. I envisioned that I would write a great book and make my literary reputation—I was aware that this might take a few years—and then simply maintain that reputation with one book after another. The trick was breaking into the magic circle; once inside, the path to future books lay glittering before you. What I didn’t understand back then, and what I nowadays take pains to communicate to newer writers, is the way in which constant failure walks hand in hand with the writing life.
I’ve had four books come to full fruition. I would estimate that, in the twenty years or so that I have been trying to write books, I have started between fifteen or twenty of them. I would estimate further that I have probably conceived of—i.e., started taking notes, or opened a file on the computer, or written down ideas in my journal—more like thirty or forty of them. My published books squat on the shoulders of dozens of half-formed and misshapen creatures that will never see the light of day.
I am reminded of these old failed projects on a regular basis, since I usually make a folder on my computer for each new book project idea in that heady first rush of inspiration when I am convinced that I have just dreamed up my first real bestseller. Hence whenever I click “Open” in my word program, searching for some document or another, the list of failed projects appears to remind me of my many failures.
Looking at that list now, I see a novel that I wrote in graduate school about the Luddite uprisings in 19th century England. I intertwined that story with the tale of a Unabomber-like modern day technophobe. I got to within ten pages of finishing the book and realized I just couldn’t figure out a satisfactory ending. It sits there on my computer like a handmade quilt with one patch missing.
The folder entitled “First Year Out Project” contains files for a book in which a fellow writer and I planned to follow a bunch of new college graduates through their first year out of school, and see how their idealistic dreams for the future collided with the hard realities of life beyond the campus cocoon. We interviewed a few recent graduates, met and did some drafting, and then gradually got distracted by other projects. “Holding One Note” contains a hundred finished pages about how I joined a rock band in my thirties, and tried to re-make myself as an artist in a new medium from the ground up. I found it too difficult both to play in the band and write about it at the same time. When the band finally folded, so did the book project.
“Religion Project”: I’m pretty sure that was a book about religion. And there’s one called “Doing Lunch Duty,” which was about parenting. Honestly I can’t even remember what half these projects were actually about, much less reproduce the mindset that convinced me they would become bestsellers.
My most recent book came out in September, which means I’ve had a few months to savor it and now it’s time to get started on another one. I’ve had a few ideas over the past six months, some of which have made it to the folder stages, while others never made it out of the journal. At the moment I feel like I’m working toward a keeper—a book about my passion for George Orwell, and about why we still need to listen to his voice today, especially when so many people misunderstand him as a critic of big government rather than as a champion of the poor and oppressed, which he was.
But I suppose I always feel like I’m working toward a keeper when I’m on a project, even if I eventually realize it’s not worth pursuing. As a younger writer, this used to bother me. Why do I waste my time on so many failed projects? If I committed to some of these ideas for just a little bit longer, wasn’t there a chance they might blossom into something worth publishing? With so much published work under my belt, why do I have to keep failing at what I believe I do best in the world?
Nowadays I understand that this is how writing works. You don’t beat yourself up over the bad ideas, and you don’t cling to them when they’re begging to be thrown off the cliff. You let them go and move onto the next one. Eventually I’ll be twenty or forty or a hundred pages into a book and realize, at some happy moment, this one’s going to make it.
Plenty of good evidence on learning and the human brain suggests that we learn most deeply from failure. A child wants to get in that cupboard, and pulls the door; it doesn’t work. He keeps trying, working away at it, thinking and using that big brain of his, until he figures out how to get his fingers in the gap and push away the child lock. Next time he comes across a locked door, he has a better chance than before of understanding how to get through it. We try what we know, we fail, we make changes and try something new. We learn.
I’ve learned plenty from writing and publishing my books. But I’ve learned just as much from my failures as writer. What took me a long time to understand was that this was just fine. Everybody fails, even the great ones. Paul Simon thought “Capeman” would sell out on Broadway. M. Night Shyamalan decided to produce a movie about plants that made people commit suicide. George Orwell wrote at least three novels I’m quite sure you’ve never heard of, and for good reason. I’m in good company.
In the weeks and months to come, I hope my Orwell project gets off the ground. But it might not. It might just die on the vine, or something better might come along to replace it. And if that book you’re working on doesn’t pan out, don’t take it as a sign from the universe that you weren’t meant to be a writer.
Let it go and dream up another one.