Modeling failure

I was at a wine and cheese fundraising reception for the Julia Morgan School for Girls last night, and ran into an old friend who asked me what I was doing. 

“Writing novels,” I said. 

“How’s it going?” he said. 

A year ago, I would have said “GRE-E-A-T,” with a Tony-the-Tiger kind of roar to my voice. And a year ago, things felt great. I had one completed draft of a novel under my belt, and was steadily churning out the initial draft of a second one. Things seemed pretty much on track with the vision I had when I left the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2008: Put the finishing touches on Novel # 1, send it out, start Novel # 2, get a contract for Novel # 1, then polish up # 2 so that once # 1 was published, I had another one ready to go. And do it all within two years.

Of course, things haven’t worked out quite that way. I do have a draft of Novel #1, and have sent it out to a bunch of agents. And last summer I completed a draft of Novel # 2. 

But Novel # 1 hasn’t been cooperating with its part of the plan. The agents all rejected it, offering pretty reasonable criticisms. I’ve been working for the past few months on revising it. It just won’t budge.

I work for days to uproot and replant whole sections of the book, and then realize I have barely trimmed a hedge. Or I make changes, but then put things back the way they were. Or I work and re-work  my notes to a point where I can’t remember why anyone would even want to read about these miserable, spoiled, whiny characters. 

So things are not feeling so Tony-the-Tiger GRE-E-A-T these days. When my friend asked how things were going, I said: 


Now, one of the things I have always loved about writing fiction is that it’s all up to you. Unlike a Hollywood movie, you don’t need a million-dollar production budget. Unlike a rock song, you don’t need any musicians to perform it. You don’t need expensive supplies or a specialized workplace or a travel budget. You just need your brain. Because you get to make everything up.

The wonderful thing about this is that if you create something, it is totally your creation – gold out of straw.

The downside is that if you fail, there is absolutely nothing to blame but your own meager brain.

And it’s possible I may be looking at complete and utter failure here. I’m starting to consider that possibility. Maybe I just can’t do this. That feels pretty awful to think about.

But strangely, there was also something that felt liberating about saying “shitty.”

Sometimes I think I put up an inhumanly bright face to my friends. When they ask how things are, I say “great.” I’m fine. Sam is fine. Becca’s fine. Our cat is fine. And in fact, I do have a wonderful life – health, love, economic security, even some luxuries. But I suspect that people get tired of hearing that. 

It felt refreshingly honest to be able to say that my writing was going shittily. And to put it that crudely – not to tiptoe around with “Well, it could be going better” or “I’m feeling challenged.” Just to say it outright: Shitty.  

And I think it may actually be useful to model failure. 

At Julia Morgan, they try to teach the girls to take risks (the healthy kind!). The teachers and staff model risk-taking by trying new things themselves. And the culture around us tells us endless stories of big risks that lead to brilliant success, from The Blind Side to Bend It Like Beckham.   

We are less likely to acknowledge that risk-taking sometimes leads to failure. A good portion of the time, in fact, it leads to failure. But failure is not the end of the world. 

So perhaps what I am doing is modeling failure. There! I can feel good about myself as a positive role model – middle-aged woman quits good job to pursue a dream, gives it her all, doesn’t manage to pull it off, but is nonetheless alive and happy.

Isn’t that a good spin on a bad situation? 

Still and all, I’d rather publish a novel.


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7 Responses to “Modeling failure”

  1. susan milligan Says:

    Unless you give up you are modeling hard work and tenacity, not failure.

  2. Nancy King Bernstein Says:

    This is the second time today I get to say I like Susan. (And it’s early.) She’s right, of course. Remember that batting titles in the major leagues go to baseball players who hit in the mid to high .300s. Which means they screw up a little less than twice as often as they succeed. xx

  3. Judy Pace Says:

    I agree, and find myself balking when someone uses the word fail or failure. Even giving up on something, be it temporarily or permanently, doesn’t count as failure. Process, effort, risk-taking, learning matters, not just the product/outcomes. Sometimes you take what you learn and move on to the next thing. Maybe you’ll go back; maybe you won’t. I agree it’s good to be honest about when things are shitty; that’s being real. So maybe you’re modeling that, which is refreshing.

  4. Ilana DeBare Says:

    I love you guys!!! :-)

  5. Elliot Eder Says:

    Ilana: i respectfully suggest some copy-editing is needed:

    1. “And in fact, I do have a wonderful life – health, love, economic security, even some luxuries. But I suspect that people get tired of hearing that. ” Er, nope. While people don’t want to be sugar-coated, hearing a friend’s perspective on the wonderful things in life (and no doubt your list could be expanded readily) is heart-warming. And given the slings and arrows, heart-warming helps a lot.

    2. on modeling failure: I was reading interviews with major folks recently about failure. All noted their certainty that failure is absolutely necessary to finding the way forward and is central to the human spirit. Tennyson was right – it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

    3. And Shakespeare also was right: our beginnings seldom know our ends. So keep that hand on the plough, hold on. – Elliot

  6. Susan Says:

    I know exactly what you mean, of course. Which is probably why I keep all my novels/books at 90% complete so I never have to deal with that other part of it. Sigh.

    I know it sucks when our books/agents/publishers don’t cooperate with our plans, but I do think you ARE modeling tenacity and perseverance. At least you are to me.

  7. rachel Says:

    Fantastic post. I wrote in a recent post that I too easily fall into the default ‘Oh it’s OK/it’s fine/don’t worry about it’ response when someone upsets me, just to keep the peace. But last night, I didn’t do that, I explained how it wasn’t fine, how I was hurt and upset and I deserved better.

    I too, found it liberating (I’m not sure if I said ‘Shitty’ though). The world didn’t collapse. The friendship didn’t end. I feel better for it, for not keeping my feelings hidden.

    Keep on keeping on. Although I do need to pull my own finger out on the writing front. I know I have a great idea. I have mapped out characters, back-stories, history – I just need to get over myself…

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