Failure: The Upside

So let’s talk failure.

10644336_898546006831368_1216796061849542633_oHere’s a photo I posted to both my website blog and my Facebook page last December. I’d just finished the first draft of the novel I’d planned to be the follow-up to Ordinary Grace. It had taken me nearly two years to complete that draft. I thought it wasn’t bad, but I knew it needed work. It had been an ambitious undertaking, dealing with a number of themes that were important to me. They were a rowdy bunch of elements, but I really believed I could corral them.

I labored over the revisions from December until June, three additional drafts, each containing significant changes. Finally my agent and I talked on the phone, and she suggested we meet in Chicago to discuss further revisions. Two days before we met, I sent her an email indicating that rather than discuss ways in which I might continue to revise the manuscript, I wanted instead to talk about how to ensure that it did not get published at all.

I think of myself as an artist. With every composition, I try to challenge myself to do something different from what I’ve done before. I work different themes, different structures, different approaches to language and point of view and even purpose. When you walk close to the edge, and I try to, the risk is that you might fall. Well, folks, I fell. But the real question is, did I fail?

I found it interesting that the moment I decided to pull this project from publication, I felt a great weight lifted from my shoulders. That weight was simply the burden of a lot of expectations. Mine, my agent’s, my publisher’s, my readers’. Admitting to myself that the writing I was about to offer would fall far short of all our expectations was surprisingly liberating. There was nothing I had to protect. And the most amazing understanding in all this for me was the realization that although I’d failed to produce the manuscript I’d hoped for, I was not a failure. I remained simply a pilgrim on this journey that offers many unexpected twists.

I tell my writing students that they shouldn’t be afraid of failure. Or more accurately, I encourage them not let failure, when it comes (and it most certainly will), throw them. They’ll probably learn more from their failure than they ever will from their success.

So I continue this journey. But I’ll tell you something. Before I abandoned the ill-conceived manuscript, I had a vision of another story, one that promised to satisfy me on every level, one that might help me create the novel that was always meant to follow Ordinary Grace. Failure can be like a cleansing rain, emptying the sky of clouds, so that you can see again the horizon. What I see there now excites me no end. And I can’t wait to get started.

20 thoughts on “Failure: The Upside”

  1. Sounds like you certainly did the right thing. First of all, you must be satisfied with your work before going to the next step. Good for you that you had the courage and wisdom to see your work objectively.

  2. Congratulations Kent. Recognizing when to turn around is as important as recognizing when to go forward. Ordinary Grace remains my favorite book of yours and I will continue to anticipate those magic words from yor heart whenever your are ready to share a new book with your readers.

  3. In October 2013, six months before he won the Edgar for “Ordinary Grace,” Kent Krueger was immensely happy with that novel. He knew a winner ahead of time, whether or not it won any awards. Same thing is true now. If it’s not your best work, do you really want to publish it? Nonnie Dahnke is correct – there’s a difference between courage and wisdom, but only gifted ones like Krueger have both.

  4. What a valuable lesson to learn and to share. Quitting isn’t failing…it is simply stopping and hopefully looking to find a new direction. Ordinary Grace touched my heart and still delights me. I would love to think more is coming, but truthfully, I’m very happy to re-read Ordinary Grace. It is a fine book and I thank you for sharing that story.

  5. Wish some other authors I follow would follow your lead. There are a couple writing now whose books I always bought the day they were published in hardback, but I no longer even bother to look at their new ones. Their last two read as if they were by a different author who had not yet learned to write. I doubt yours is that dramatically bad, but I respect and appreciate your decision, especially on light of the fact that these two nameless authors of very poorly written books are still showing up in the best seller lists. Apparently momentum carries best sellers even if the current ones are embarrassingly bad.

  6. Thank you, Kent, for your insight into yourself and your commitment to excellence. As a retired pastor who only occasionally preaches now, I am sometimes ashamed of sermons I hear that should have been pulled before they were preached! I remember several instances of revising a sermon only a few minutes before preaching, and at least twice of cancelling a sermon from my mind and heart on the way to the pulpit and preaching something else — hopefully straight from God. My wife and I await eagerly your next publication. God bless you!

  7. Kent, you are doing a brave thing. and I am not surprised at your insight.
    you have the moxie & sagacity of knowing your own work.
    I am glad you share it with all of us.

  8. Thank you for your discipline and insight. Your books are passed around in Burns, Cheyenne, and Laramie Wy. We look forward to the next read. Former Duluth resident now Alpaca farmer.

  9. There is nothing more beautiful than words. As an artist, authors must remain true to their medium. What comes next will be better because you had the conviction to remain true to yourself and to your art. Thank you for sharing your decision.

  10. As one of your best cheerleaders, I await every novel you’ve written. And since Ordinary Grace is one of my all-time favorite books, I was greatly anticipating a sequel. But I so admire your integrity and see this decision not as a failure, merely a pause. So while I wait, I’ll re-read Ordinary Grace, joyfully. Thanks, Kent, for your honesty. May your vision be clear for this next composition.

  11. When your wife told me this the other night (after Wine & Words), I think I sucked all the air out of the room in shock. No! How could it be?

    Yet why would you continue on with This Tender Land at this time when it doesn’t feel right to you? Other authors might do it for the money, your integrity for your work reminds us all why we love you and your writing so much.

    I’m still holding out hope though. 🙂

  12. A wise man once told me you can’t hit it out of the ballpark every time!
    Thank you for your honesty and integrity. You’re an inspiration.

  13. And this is why we love you. Not only can you confront failure, you can share it with the world so that your experience can help and inspire others. This is why there is more there, there and more wonderful stories to come.

  14. I have loved ALL your books. I am awaiting the next Cork O’Connor book as much as I awaited “Windigo Island” after reading all of the series one right after the other. I patiently await the next!! I doubt I would ever think a book you write is a failure. Keep writing and I’ll keep buying.

  15. The key is not to allow our failures to stop us from progressing. I know that first-hand, since I have a difficult time getting back into the writing mode when I hit a road block. I can learn a few things from you. You are an excellent role model, Kent.

  16. I have enjoyed all your writing immensely over the years. Your instincts in your writing are wonderful. I can’t imagine the 7 letter F-word is even involved with your decision.

    It’s like playing a bad poker hand you know is going to loose. Your tenacity wants you to keep going, but your instincts say fold and try a new hand. When we walk the new (riskier) path, sometimes it gets dark and takes us in the wrong direction and starts looking all wrong. The smartest thing to do is turn around and go back to the safe path. One thing to note, when you get back there, you will have changed, as will the place you started and the path you walked before you were exploring. Best Wishes in moving forward.

  17. THANK YOU for sharing your heart on what must have been an incredibly awkward and painful level – and what a great life lesson for all of us. I had expected to hear about the novel at Wine and Words in Nisswa, now I know the rest of the story. You are a gifted writer and one of the most sensitive men I have ever met. I wish you success, satisfaction and peace in all you pursue. We have continuing positive feedback about the blessings you bestowed on all of W&W participants. Look forward to your new projects. Still wish I could have a burger at Sam’s Place.

  18. I just finished reading Ordinary Grace a second time. This time, because I am a writer, I read it more slowly appreciating and savoring this wonderful story about small towns and the joys and challenges of such a place. As I small town (population 538) boy growing up in southwest Minnesota in the late fifties and sixties, I really appreciated the attention paid to detail of that time. I loved the epilogue, all with men, all loving one another. Tears flowed easily from me as I read it. Great job of story telling. And a sequel? No, the story is complete as it is.

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