Happy birthday to a living legend.
In celebration of the day, here is a recap of all my posts about Saint of Yamhill from last year, when I re-read many of her books.
Happy birthday to a living legend.
In celebration of the day, here is a recap of all my posts about Saint of Yamhill from last year, when I re-read many of her books.
My next guest blogger is Jennifer R. Hubbard, author of three novels for young adults and a book on writing. I’m intrigued by Jennifer’s discussion of “failure narratives.” We’re conditioned by books and public speakers and various superstars and heroes to believe in ourselves, and to know we can do anything, which might inspire us but also prepares us poorly for other outcomes: ordinary, boring lives. I recall that the eponymous hero of Jude the Obscure was fixated for a time on the folktale of Dick Whittington; a favorite of mine, too, when I was a boy. Of course Jude is bound for a less fairy-tale existence. The minor classic, Stoner, by John “not-the-composer” Williams has a similar theme. Recommend your own in the comments, particularly those that perhaps celebrate the heroic struggles of those ragamuffin wanderers who never find a magic bottle.
You would think writers would talk more about failure, since it’s such an integral part of the job description. We fail a lot. We abandon manuscripts, collect rejections, have projects canceled. Most traditional books don’t earn out their advances, which means they don’t hit their sales goals. We hear “no” a lot more than we hear “yes.”
Failure especially comes as a shock if we’ve had some success first. We expect to fail at the beginning of our careers, when we’re inexperienced. And we love the narrative of failure as a precursor to success; we love an earned happy ending. We love when the earlier pain proves to have purpose and meaning. But we don’t think of success as temporary. Once we’ve arrived, we don’t expect to get kicked out of the party. Why we expect this, I don’t know. We’ve read the cautionary biographies; we’ve seen the biopics. We’ve all seen famous names fade from view. Few people stay on top forever.
While failure sometimes comes from not working hard enough or not knowing enough—the problems we can control and overcome—it also comes from dozens of other little factors we can’t control or even foresee, such as fashion and timing, illness and disaster, culture shifts and technological changes. For every person who follows a formula to success, thousands of others follow the same formula and fail.
The simple fact is that failure is more common and more likely.
I have searched for failure narratives where failure is not just a precursor to success. They are rare and powerful. There’s Susan Allen Toth’s “Summa,” a chapter in her memoir Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East, about ambition and perfectionism and loss, about what happens when you don’t live up to your potential, about how a couple of bad days can wipe out years’ worth of work. There is Joan Ryan’s Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, in which the “breaking” overwhelms the “making.”
In I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron wrote one of the most honest essays about failure that I’ve ever read (“Flops”). She was referring to movies, but her main conclusions apply more widely. In short, failure is painful and unpredictable. We don’t necessarily learn from it, and we don’t necessarily forget it. Failure can scar. In short, all the things we fear about failure are true.
Even as I write this, I feel the pressure to steer toward a positive message. Which may be why we don’t discuss the bitterness of failure much: What a downer! But for me, there is comfort in a few of these truths. First, since failure is a lot more common than success, we have plenty of company when we fail. Second, most failures are not fatal. And third: You never know. If failure is unpredictable, so is success. Some people say that neither failure nor success is as important as trying. (A variation of that sentiment even appears in the Olympic ideal, as voiced by Pierre de Coubertin.) I don’t know that I’d go that far—yet here I am, trying still.
Jennifer R. Hubbard (www.jenniferhubbard.com) is the author of three novels for young adults and several short stories. Her most recent book, Loner in the Garret: A Writer’s Companion, discusses failure and success and everything in between. She lives near Philadelphia with an understanding husband, a pile of books and chocolate, and a melodramatic cat.
We continue to consider failure through the wise, honest words of science fiction author Lyda Morehouse (and a few from Milton).
In the Koran, Iblis (Satan) feels Allah tricked him (long story, but he’s super mad about Allah’s newest creation, human beings, and when Allah presented this new muddy clump of animated clay, Satan refused to bow before it, because, he felt, that God was the only one worthy of his devotion. Satan thought that the point of this exercise to check the loyalty of the angels. He thought himself pretty smug for having passed. So, no surprise he feels very PWN’d when Allah says he will be cast out of Paradise for his transgression,) so Satan/Iblis says:
“Because You have sent me astray, surely I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your Straight Path. Then I will come to them from before them and behind them, from their right and from their left…”
Traditional New York publishers aren’t the Great Satan, but I have spent many days counting the ways in which I feel they share similar characteristics.
There are a lot of reasons to be bitter about the state of publishing. My personal story of heartache has a lot in common with Iblis’s, at least in my own mind. I actually got into Paradise, which is to say that a prominent publishing house picked up my first novel. That book came out to a moderate amount of fanfare. From there on out, I tried to be a perfect angel. I never missed a deadline. When my editor called and said, “So, this Twilight book is hot. You think you could do something similar?” I happily said yes, even though maybe a tiny part of my soul died a little. I never fought editorial changes to my book. NEVER. “It’s their book,” I told myself. “They paid for it.”
And then I was cast out.
I spent a lot of time brooding about this since. Was it just my time and was this the excuse they were looking for? I know that can happen because I narrowly avoided being “quietly shown the door” earlier because I met and bonded with my previous editor. My science fiction numbers hadn’t been what the publisher was hoping for, but we chatted at a convention and he, bless his soul, decided he’d tell me what his bosses had in store for me and helped me switch from science fiction to romance. So, I’d gotten some awesome breaks in the past.
Truthfully, I got fourteen published books out of my run; I was probably simply due for a fall.
But you would not believe the amount of time I have spent turning over details and events around that final moment. Who’s fault was it? Was it fair? Who could I blame? Should I have fought over creative differences earlier? Would that have helped my books be better, and thus improve my numbers? Or, was it a mistake to fight? Should I have continued to capitulate in hopes that things would get better and so that would have yet another book to write under contract?
Any one of those could have been my great failure. But, believe it or not, none of that really matters.
The mistake I’ve made is allowing myself to become bitter. The single most destructive force in my career has been me: my willingness to bow my head and quit.
I always believed that I could never not write, and that’s been true. I’ve been writing ever since my publishing career crumbled beneath my feet, but I gave up striving for publication. There are so many new avenues for writers these days and instead of exploring self or small press publishing, I have stared at the doors of heaven and shaken my fists.
This is a mistake—it’s a failure of resilience, a loss of hope that I’m finally beginning to recover from. I’ve been trying my hand at new ways of writing: a comic book script, collaboration, self-publishing, etc.
And I’m here to tell you that writing can still make me happy. It’s still the greatest job on earth. Ultimately, I have found an answer to the question another writer once posed:
“To be or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or by opposing, end them?”
It is better to oppose them.
It is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.
Lyda Morehouse writes about that gets other people in trouble: religion and science. Her first novel Archangel Protocol won the Shamus Award for best paperback novel featuring a private detective. A subsequent novel, Apocalypse Array, also came in second for the prodigious Philip K. Dick award. This, however, did not insulate her from failure and so she revived her career as paranormal romance writer Tate Hallaway, author of the Garnet Lacey series and the YA series, Vampire Prince of St. Paul. She is now attempting to rise from the ashes again. Wish her luck and follow her progress at: www.lydamorehouse.com or on twitter @tatehallaway or via the various places she blogs, including www.tatehallway.blogspot.com
A few weeks ago author Shannon Hale blogged about showing up for a school visit and learning that only the girls would be attending her lecture. The assumption that boys don’t want to see a “girl book” author is wrong in a million ways, but enough people have responded to this outrage, and I don’t need to add to the chorus.
I know Shannon Hale is popular with young readers, as her name always comes up when I poll groups of kids on their favorite books, but I’d fallen into the same benign sexism as the school: assuming that something that looks like this had no interest to me.
But in following this story, I read a synopsis of Princess Academy and was intrigued. It sounded far more interesting than I would have guessed from the title and cover. Now, after reading it, I know it a thoughtful critique of the “princess” ideal with a strong feminist theme. Its popularity with girls shows that they are quite ready for this message.
Hale’s way into this topic is intricate: girls competing against one another, tempted by materialism, made to feel ashamed and undeserving. Every element feels natural in the story but could lead to rich discussions about how own culture treats girls. It could even be assigned reading in a college class on women’s studies or gender issues. But the sociopolitical aspects are so well integrated with a good story, it doesn’t feel like the whole book is just a frame for a lecture. I’ve read few children’s books that are as deceptively simple on the outside and run as deep.
After a childhood of Disney princesses, girls really need books like Hale’s. I think boys should read it too: because it’s an enjoyable book, and to have an idea of what girls are going through. We know many men arrive at college belligerent and hostile to feminism; why not begin those discussions sooner?
Besides that, few quote/unquote “boy books” show heroes as reflective and conscientious as Miri. Boys steeped in the personal exceptionalism and power fantasies that often shape “their” stories will be ill-equipped for the real world; Miri is a much better role model for all children.
How do we make the leap to a world where boys can read a book called Princess Academy without fear of bullying and scoffing? Men need to read books by and about women, showing that it’s expected of men to care about women, and boys about girls. And schools need to encourage boys to see brilliant authors like Shannon Hale when they’re lucky enough to have her instead of keeping them in class.
I’m welcoming my first guest blogger on the topic of failure today, writer and teaching artist Donna Trump. Is it easier to let yourself fail than your children?
Twenty-plus years ago, my children had an excellent elementary school teacher who was a proponent of parents allowing their children to fail. I dismissed her, of course: What child doesn’t have ample opportunity to fail?
A closer look at my own parenting at the time revealed I was doing exactly what this teacher preached against: I was trying, very hard, to prevent my kids’ failure. From the arguably innocuous retrieval of lunches and assignments when they were left behind; to the poorly disguised control-freak aspect of perennially volunteering in my kids’ classrooms; to the absolutely cringe-worthy hyper-maternal defense mode I went into when one was called out on perfectionism (ya think?) and the other on punching a kid in the face; to the ethically bankrupt decision (after a particularly trying mix of personalities the year before) to hand-pick their Odyssey of the Mind team, which I was coaching—I had to admit, I was guilty as charged.
I did these things to shield my kids from various types and degrees of failure: bad grades, bad learning environments, bad reputations, bad relationships with friends and peers. I did not want them to fail. No one wants their kids to fail. We want to be our children’s champions. We need to be our children’s champions, their advocates, their biggest fans. It hurts, terribly, to watch them suffer—as they will, certainly, when we stop rescuing them from themselves. But having things turn out less than perfectly teaches them something, too.
Studies show that kids who have a chance to fail (and, notably, to recover) tend to develop personality characteristics like tenacity and grit. Occasional crappy outcomes teach them they’ll survive, even when the world’s not a perfect place.
As my kids got older, mouthier, more confident it occurred to me: What if I didn’t replace that mysteriously crushed iPod? What if I declined decorating the gym for a dance when the child whose dance it was somehow managed to weasel out of the assignment? And what if I even called said child out, publicly, on errors in judgment about both me and that touchy issue of work ethic?
I wasn’t always strong enough to follow through. To understand that I wasn’t competing for popularity. I should have more often doled out a few key phrases: “You’ll live.” “Life isn’t a bowl of cherries.” “Try again.”
I’m sorry about that. I failed my children and myself. Nonetheless I stuck with it. This parenting thing (repeated failure and all) has brought out the tenacious in me. Opportunities for growth have abounded. Failure does that. And now I am more likely than ever to let failure happen.
Unless you want to rescue your children for the rest of time, from a failed job interview, or a failed relationship, or a failed dream, however heartbreaking, I suggest you practice these phrases: You’ll live. Life isn’t a bowl of cherries. Try again. Because if not now, then surely at some point you will no longer be able to rescue your kids in any meaningful way, and they will have only their own resources to draw on.
Disappointing and even devastating things will befall our children, at times as a result of their own doing. I wish this weren’t true, but experience tells me otherwise. One of our most important jobs as parents is to prepare our kids for these practically inevitable failures. Prepare them. Let them practice (while we’re still close by) with bad grades, bad behavior, bad decisions of all kinds. Teach them how to redeem themselves and then let them fail again, while the stakes are still relatively low and while they still come home, in victory and defeat, to us.
And if you happen to be a writer as well as a parent, be heartened: practice with failure—who knew?—appears to cross genres. Take it from me: opportunities for growth, as they say, abound.
There’s been a lot of positive feedback on my previous post, and a lot of offers to participate — so I hope to keep bringing you guest posts from writers across the success spectrum about the kind of failure writers experience. I’ll start with my own.
I want to focus on the kind of failure Debbie Reese was talking about when she jumpstarted this — she referred to a game developers conference where developers speak frankly about failures (sometimes with huge losses of investment), and specifically about a game with Native American tropes that missed the mark. She had critiqued it while in progress, and the developer initially reacted to the critique with the defensiveness and defiance, he ultimately saw her point and grew from it.
It’s important to learn from criticism, especially coming from historically marginalized groups. It is also completely natural to be frustrated by it, defensive, defiant, upset, and annoyed. You spend untold hours working on something creative and it only takes a few minutes for someone to shred it. When a book is already published, there’s not even much you can do about the offense it causes, making it that much easier to push back. But it stunts you as an artist not to listen to feedback. Charlie Chaplin said that artists should actively seek out rejection, and abandon the need to be liked. Part of that is listening to criticism and mulling it over, and part of it is learning to critique yourself in a constructive way.
I have three regrets (and I would probably have more if I thought about it).
First, I have some Native American backstory in my first book, Mudville, and feel like those characters are real and vital to the book. Because such legends figure into the fantasy of the midwest, I felt like I was on firm soil. I got mixed reactions from readers, though, and in particularly upset a woman who had helped me with the Dakota language and cultural aspects as I put the book together. I don’t know what I would do differently were I to start over: drop that backstory all together? Make it more essential? As it is, I can see how readers feel it’s tacked on, appropriating a culture in a half-hearted way, without much sensitivity to the terrible treatment Dakota people have had in this region. At best, I see myself like the school bully at a 20-year high school reunion, throwing his arm amiably around old victims and acting like those episodes of bullying were harmless shared capers that we indulged in together. “We’re cool, right?”
Second, I’ve written previously about Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay, “How to Write About Africa,” and how my own book about Africa measures up. I feel like I failed here to know the tropes well enough to avoid them. I patted myself on the back for writing a positive book (and still think those books are necessary), but live with the fact that I fell into the familiar role of white colonist, having the most important African characters be (a) a wild animal, and (b) the sage, magical character. I did a lot right in the book and it’s still my favorite; it is honest about my own experience, but if I had discovered Wainaina’s article before I launched into the book I might have done something even better, something less reliant on cliches.
Third, I think perhaps my biggest regret in any of my books is not making Penny the main character in Winter of the Robots. She’s my favorite character in the book, and both strategically and for the benefit of the girls of the world, I wish I could have said, “this is about a girl who has a knack for programming robots,” and made that the core of the book. If I ever write a sequel, that will be it. As it turned out, even with two girl characters asserting themselves, they take a backseat to the boys when it comes to building and developing the robots and fighting the battles. (OK, one literally drives with the boys in the back seat, but nobody’s going to be fooled by that one scene.)
All of these figure into how I approach books now. More beta readers from other backgrounds is essential, more attention to the way “others” are treated, more challenges to myself to not settle for my instinctive plot lines that are informed by a literary history of white men.
It’s self-serving. I admit to the failures so I can write better books.
I was led (via Twitter) by an educator named Debbie Reese, one of the people on the forefront of “We Need Diverse Books,” to a series of workshops on failure at an annual conference for game developers. As the article says:
[At a gaming conference] there is a strong success bias – you are not going to hear a lot of companies trumpet their failures. Failure, however, can be often be more instructive than success.
The same can be said of writing conferences. The keynotes are writers with “New York Times Bestelling Author” in front of their names, with awards and movie adaptations. We don’t see the worst-sellers speaking, but they have more wisdom — they know how to brace themselves for another disappointment, how to keep writing when you can’t make a living at it, and how to soldier on through a manuscript that might never find a single reader. They’ve weathered the storms and survived and can now tell us, like the wretched old man in that poem, about the albatross of regret.
Failure can mean lots of things in writing. A book that didn’t get published, a book that published and didn’t sell, a book that sold but got lambasted by reviewers, or even a book that did well on all accounts but still makes the writer cringe. There are PR disasters, author events where nobody shows, terrible interviews, and (for my crowd) school visits that make the author want to hit every bar on the way home.
But failures, mistakes, and bad experiences are learning experiences, and here is what I want to do: I want to destigmatize failure. I want writers to talk about their failures frankly, and what they learned from them.
I am going to make this a series, but won’t put an end point on it. One thing I’ve learned from past failures (remember the Mark Twain blog?) is to take these things slow.
But I’m going to put this idea out there now and solicit future interviewees or guest bloggers who can write about failure. It doesn’t even have to be about writing. Leave a comment or send me a message.
I am going to kick things off with my own story in a day or two.