So let’s talk failure.
Here’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.