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.