Recently, “failure” seems to be a recurring subject. Maggie Slater turned my mind in the direction of failure after reading her blog post this morning, “Thoughts On Failure.” Which quickly brought to mind Nick Mamatas, who wrote “Of Success and Failure,” regarding his difficulty in whipping up writers to speak on a panel about, you guessed it, failure.
Talos recently published my first novel, Bring Me Flesh, I’ll Bring Hell. How it got from pen to shelf is a head trip, but ironically, Maggie Slater was a part of that trip — the failing part. And that’s not in a negative sense of the word in any wise. That is, she was one of the first to reject the manuscript. Being professionals, we were cordial and I thanked her for her time. I was happy to find her blog a few years later as Bring Me Flesh was going to press, and leading us, inexorably, to this odd point in time — to a blog on failure.
I have, roughly counting, about 300 rejections. I know this because I keep a spreadsheet, but the spreadsheet is missing maybe two years worth of rejections, and the spreadsheet doesn’t keep track of the rejections accumulated by various trunk novels, submissions to agents and editors. It could be more than 300. I’ve had published/slated for publication 21 short stories out of those 300 rejections, and one novel. I have a heartbreaking list of held submissions at coveted venues that came to naught, because in the end, “almost” only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. And in all that time, while I knew I was striving for some kind of goal, I was so busy just trying to survive my life, ideas of “failure” and “success” never really entered my head in the same fashion as others.
I meet rejection with stoic placidity. Ah, they didn’t like it, they hated it, they don’t have room enough for it, my name doesn’t sound like money enough for it, I don’t go square dancing with pink elephants every second Wednesday of the month, whatever the reasons are, they are legion, and that is what the writing life tends to be about. A wall of rejections. When my then agent offered to let me pass on seeing the editorial rejections, I was confused. “So you don’t get depressed,” she explained. I think I might have put the phone down and looked around for someone to explain to me what she was talking about before it occurred to me that wow, people take rejections personally. People cry when they get rejected, people get upset and never write again when they get rejected.
I honestly had no idea. I still have my first rejection slip from when I was 13. Since the moment I had the audacity to be yanked out of the womb, rejection has been the order of the day. I didn’t walk right — they slapped leg braces on me. I couldn’t write — they diagnosed me with dyslexia and held me back a year. One of my earliest childhood memories was winning a contest in school and having the teacher promptly forget I existed and hand the prize to a different person. My unfortunate tendency to be invisible makes this phenomena a repeat event. I remember being told a neighbor strangled our rooster to death and that, apparently, was that. My favorite dog, a bear-sized Newfoundland, died in the cornfield of congestive heart failure and it was the first time I remember crying over something that couldn’t just get better. Broken stalks of corn, and that huddled mass of black fur out in the field. And those are just a collection of small experiences. They would be dwarfed in size by greater heart breaks to come, by astounding reversals of fortune ahead, by the tumult one can only experience when the wheel of fate turns, crushes you, and then turns to do it again until you have the sense enough to grab the spokes and pull out of the rut. Some never realize there are spokes in that wheel. Some never get out.
What does all that have to do with writing? By comparison, rejections, the failings of writing and publishing — are diminished before the more terrible rejections life can offer you. I have no idea if Bring Me Flesh is selling well or selling poorly. I give it what promotion I can without being overbearing, I support it as much as I am able. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter if the book is a runaway success or it stays weighted to the shelves like a grand piano — I still have to get up in the morning and face the blank page. I still have responsibilities to people in my life who matter to me. I still have to pay the bills, and look myself in eye and ask if I’ve done the best I can in the time I’m given.
There is a lot of truth to the idea that one can’t become a success without failing first — the idea of somehow lessening the sting of our relative failures by suggesting it’s just a stepping stone to greatness — but I’m not going to tell you that.
There is an implied value judgment behind terms like “failure” and “success” — as though to be anything other than successful, is not to matter at all, and you cease to exist. Some people never “succeed”. Some people fail, and fail hard, and never have this elusive success. Failure and success are poor rubrics by which to measure life, and no way to measure our human existence. Van Gogh did not cease to be brilliant or have value simply because he was not successful in his lifetime. And those who count themselves as the most successful, often do not perceive that they’ve accomplished much. I’ve not even talking about a “happiness” quotient as a measure of success; when Julius Caesar turned thirty, he felt himself a total failure because he had not lived up to the standard Alexander the Great set, and had failed to conquer the world.
Got a pulse? In relative good health? Is there food available to you? Do you have shelter? You live in a first world? You have internet access? Running water? Indoor plumbing? Do you have a some what intact nuclear family? At least one other person in the universe who would miss you if you were gone? A community that accepts you?
Do you have the strength of your imagination? Talent? Wit? And the will to learn? An open mind — a communicative heart? Your relative freedom?
You’re the success.
Perhaps that answer disappoints you; you were hoping for more. But there’s people in the world who don’t have the baseline for existence. What some dismiss as a basic foundation for life is unreachable for a great number of people. And that is not a function of their failure so much as it is circumstance beyond one’s ability to control. Without basic conditions such as those, you could have all the best sellers in the world under your belt, it’s never gonna make you healthy if you are sick, it’s not going to provide you beloved relatives who aren’t there, and maybe you can buy friends with the money, but you’re still gonna be alone, and all the healthcare in the world can’t cure mortality. If this wasn’t the pep talk you were looking for, welcome to your next rejection: this post.
Don’t set your values of life on failure and success alone, and most of all, don’t set your life and your identity on your chosen career — which is often what we really mean when we say “failure” and “success”. We’re talking about our jobs. We’re talking about the money we make at those jobs. But your career has more potential to end before your life does. Where will you be then, if you’ve set all your identity and value on something that isn’t there for you any longer? Put these rejections and successes in their context, and think critically about what defines them. Are rejections truly painful enough to stop you in your tracks? How badly do you want success? Do you want it at any price? Is it really worth it?
After awhile, I fail to perceive the demarcation between what counts as a failure and what counts as a success. You come to realize, there’s merely events and experiences, some mystifying, some disappointing, and some astonishing, that happens along the way of this miraculous life.
Awaken to it; know yourself as if for the very first time, and If you are reading this, you may be more successful than you know.