January’s FEATURED AUTHOR: The Prospect of Failure…

‘Tis another Wednesday in January (are these flying by, or is it just me?), and with it is another appearance by our Featured Author, Wendy Russ. Today she stops in with a guest post on failure, and its role in success.

First off, please wish Wendy a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! (yes, today’s her birthday)

Then, read on!
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The Prospect of Failure

My son sat in a heap at the end of the couch. His face was buried in his hands and he was crying.

“What is it, baby?”

He rolled into a ball and mumbled something. I sat next to him and pulled him into my lap. “What what. Tell me what.”

“I want to ask Daddy something, but I know he will say no.”

It’s moments like this when I have trouble deciding how much I want to romanticize the challenges of life.

My son is six, so I feel a strong urge to talk to him about how challenges should inspire him, and how much character he will build if he just rises to the occasion and overcomes his innate human weaknesses. I want to tell him how if he pushes through his fear and looks back he will see a growth point in his life that will make him proud.

The other part of me, the practical, no-nonsense me wants to say, “Life is hard. Suck it up and get on with your life. Nobody is going to wait around for you. You have to fight for what you want.”

Those are both true, and simple truths to state. They are hard truths to clutch to your chest, to house in your heart. And they are truths we have to tell ourselves over and over because they don’t stick.

So, I end up telling my son as simply as I know how. “If you don’t ask for what you want, you won’t get what you want. You have to risk hearing ‘no’ to hear the word ‘yes.’”

***

Being a writer is sometimes scary. There is a lot of rejection. Nobody cares how hard you work on your story or how much it means to you. You send it out and inevitably you’ll get a rejection. It hurts to hear “no.”

We send things to crit partners. If they do their job right they will tell you what sucks about what you’ve written. After you pour yourself onto the page, it’s hard to hear, “sorry, not quite good enough.”

We read brilliant writers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tossed a book onto the floor next to my chair and slumped down, muttering, “Good grief, I’ll never string words into a sentence that beautiful no matter how long and how hard I try.” The prospect of failure is paralyzing.

And yet if we don’t do it, we relegate ourselves to that class of person who says, “I always wanted to be a writer.” You know the ones. You meet them all time when you say the words, “I wrote this novel…”

The courage to face rejection, to face our fears is what separates the writers from the people who want to be writers.

***

Once I said, “I don’t know how to write a book.”

My sage friend replied, “Fill blank pages.”

I rolled my eyes and started typing.

I said again, “I don’t how to keep writing this book. I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where to go next. I…” Blah blah blah.

He said, “Fill blank pages.”

I sighed with a dramatic, heaving bosom and kept typing.

A few months later, I’d written a book.

He said, “Welcome to the 1%.”

***

I make a game of working through my fear.

Of rejections:

I tell myself that to get my story accepted it must first be rejected 20 times. I insist that before this story can be published I MUST HAVE 20 rejections in a stack and then it will have proven itself. Sort of like when your mom says you have to eat three pieces of asparagus before you can have the cookie.

I really want that cookie. And I’m over the moon when it only takes a mere 12 rejections to get there.

Of smart, eagle-eyed crit partners:

Write like nobody is watching. My first draft is a self-indulgent freebie. I write like it will come out of the printer and be thrown into a raging bonfire where I’ll dance around it like a drunken pagan as it floats toward the sky in the form of ash. (If it helps, you can actually do this. It’s fun.)

Then, I revise as if it’s a challenge to see how clean I can make my revision. I want to make it hard for my crit partner to find something. Like a game of battleship. I want to write a manuscript that says, “I dare you to find something. I DARE YOU.” Make your crit partner sweat to find something to fix. Make your beta readers work to be critical. Challenge them by challenging yourself.

The crits hurt less when you know you’ve done your best. Because that’s when you know it’s time to raise the bar. When it’s not scary enough, you are ready for the next level.

Of feeling inadequate:

The truth I hate the most is that there is always someone better than you. Better, faster, stronger, more brilliant, more beautiful, more lucky. You’ll never be them.

Don’t compete against those people. Compete against yourself.

Are you a better writer (knitter, cook, comedian, book reviewer) than you were this time last year? Leave yourself in the dust. Write something today that you’ll be embarrassed by three years from now and will not admit to having written ten years from now.

And if you keep doing that enough times maybe you’ll write something that makes some poor writer throw her book down and say, “OMG, I’ll never string words into a sentence that beautiful no matter how long and how hard I try.”

***

I write like I know something. But really all I know is what works for me. I know the fear that something COULD happen makes my little boy cry even when nothing bad has happened at all. I know that my fear of failure makes me slow to start my next book. I know my fear of criticism makes me put off sending my latest finished piece to my crit partner because it could be judged and found unworthy.

And all those things? They keep me from that transcendent feeling I get when I’ve written something that feels right and beautiful, when I’ve written something that makes someone say, “yes” instead of “no.”

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How many times has fear motivated our actions — or inaction? And how many of us won’t even admit to it, never mind revealing our fears to others? Thank you, Wendy, for sharing this with us. And thank you for visiting this month.


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