This is a story about failure
There's a beginning and a middle, but the end is still up in the air.
Today I want to talk about a big part of the creative life: failure.
In early 2015, a few months after earning my MFA and landing a literary agent, my first novel went out on submission. Right away, things looked promising. A few editors expressed interest and I took some thrilling phone calls. But no one loved it quite enough, and in the end my book did not sell.
Needless to say, watching a lifelong dream slip through my fingers was devastating. My only consolation was that I hadn’t told many people I was going out on submission, so my failure remained a private shame. (The fact that I’m telling this story now is a sign of growth!)
I’m the kind of person who treats productivity as a salve, so I immediately spent the next five years working on a new novel. This one was about an artist who loses everything, because that’s how I felt after failing to get a book deal on the first try. (Dramatic? Maybe!!! But it helped.)
In early 2020, that book went out on submission, but this time things were different. A lot had changed over the past five years. I had a good job, a community, and a measure of self-worth that no longer relied on my literary career, or lack thereof. The book was a part of me, but it wasn’t the whole thing. I was hopeful as it made its way to editors, but otherwise avoided thinking too much about it.
Thanks to the ensuing pandemic, stay-at-home orders, civil unrest, BLM protests, and the most stressful election of my life, not thinking about the book was actually pretty easy. With everything else going on in the world, it just didn’t seem that important.
But that’s only part of the story. The other part goes like this: it wasn’t a lack of ego that kept me zen, but an excess.
You see, even as I spent half a decade writing and revising, even as my agent sent the book to a long list of editors, even as those editors regretfully passed (always the regret!), I never truly believed that second book was meant to be my debut. Writing it was not an act of passion, but compulsion. The whole time I had this nagging feeling that there was a better book inside me.
Which is why, when I didn’t sell a book for the second time—when I failed, again—I wasn’t devastated or heartbroken or convinced that my literary career was over before it began. The point of writing is not publishing. It’s to keep writing no matter what, and in that sense I’ve been very successful.
Now I’m working on book number three, which is already so much better than the first two. (See? Despite my failures, I still have plenty of ego.) As I write and revise, I feel less pressure and more pleasure. The plot is fun and dark and full of risks, which I’m no longer afraid to take. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? No one will publish it? I’ll stick it in a drawer? Been there, done that, still writing.
This is not to say that failure is easy or fun or that I enjoy it. (I had reservations about my second novel, but if someone offered me a book deal I would have accepted it in a instant.) Failure is neither the ending I once feared, nor a new beginning. It’s simply one stop on a long journey, a place you’ll revisit countless times as you travel through life. Greet it warmly when you arrive, but don’t get too comfortable. You’ve still got a long road ahead of you.
Snack of the Week
In honor of Valentine’s Day weekend, I made a Chocolate Pudding Pie. My mom made this for every holiday when I was a kid and it was my absolute favorite. This grown up, vegan version comes care of my favorite cookbook writer, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, and is very easy to make. Don’t skimp on the coconut whip. Remember, you’re worth it.
The Secret, Essential Geography of the Office, Wired. There has been much to enjoy about WFH life, but as we near a year of endless Zooms and never leaving home, I’m ready to head back to the office. This piece made me nostalgic for the quirks of our office lives, their weird little histories and cultures. 💼
How to Brag Better, Cosmopolitan. “Bragging is simply stating facts about your work, strategically and cohesively, to advance your career or goals—regardless of your title or seniority level.” 📣
‘I Get Better Sleep’: The People Who Quit Social Media, The Guardian. “Because I don’t have social media, I don’t waste my time. I’m not bombarded with people constantly taking away my time from me. I put it towards myself and my goals.” I don’t see myself quitting social media entirely. However, my new phone allows me to put time limits on certain apps, which has proven to be an extremely healthy decision! ⏰
Creeping as a Service (CraaS), Every. “Spoonbill catalogues every time-stamped keystroke and tracked change—from the removal of a single stuffy period to self-consciously swapping ‘Marketer’ for ‘Storyteller’ and reverting back again. Like the photos in your camera roll, your current Twitter bio has left—for Spoonbill users to see—a wake of rejected selves.” Absolutely loved this deep dive into how we edit our Twitter bios and what it all means. 🤯
Speaking of failure, applications for NEA fellowships in creative writing are open! I apply every year I’m eligible, because why not? At the very least it makes me think about what I’m writing and why, which is never a waste. ✏️
Somehow I missed these yoga classes during January’s 30-day yoga journey. Good thing I decided to continue the streak for February - there’s still time! 🧘🏻♀️
A Tiny To-Do
One writing project at which I have not failed is this newsletter! This week marks two years since I launched So Relatable, and it continues to bring me joy, connection, and community, not to mention an excuse to talk endlessly about myself (my favorite thing!). In honor of our little anniversary, I encourage you to take a risk, try something new, and give yourself the freedom to fail or the opportunity to succeed. Either way, the starting line is the same.
Want to treat me to a ☕️ and support So Relatable? 💛 💃 🙌
Venmo: @Christine-Hennessey or PayPal Me.
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