I'm a failure at heart. How do I know? I actually miss walking to my mailbox and collecting form rejections. I miss those late nights at Kinko's collating stories. I miss licking all those envelopes, sending out all those packages.
I've always enjoyed the busy work of being a writer. The networking, the mailing, the due diligence. It's all part of the bigger discipline of being a writer, and I've always been grateful to have the work. Even if it only ever amounted to 400 rejection letters.
Truth be told, I'm glad it amounted to all that rejection. It taught me to keep my head down in spite of the futility, to keep believing in myself as an artist. It taught me patience, fortitude and, most importantly, it taught me that success didn't really matter. Next to the life-transforming experience of creating whole worlds with your imagination, nearly everything else was trivial. Sure, success would be a hell of a cherry on top, and yeah, I was gonna keep licking envelopes, but no amount of rejection or failure was going to stop me from writing.
Read more authors' stories of how they did it with Amy Sohn.
Practice makes, well, closer to perfect, anyway
I wrote six novels, a memoir and a collection of stories before my “debut” novel was published. Three of those early novels were so bad that I literally buried them. Salted the earth. And never once in the intervening years have I regretted the act. I am grateful for those failures. I learned so much in my long apprenticeship—about craft, about form, about the reader—and almost all of it I learned by failure.
I really believe that trial and error is the best way to improve your writing. People can teach you principles, they can provide you examples, they can coach you, but nothing but the work itself is going to make you any better. And nobody stands a greater chance of arriving at a unique voice or vision than somebody who has groped their way through a thousand failures with no guidance at all. I owe in large part the success of All About Lulu, and all the good fortune I've enjoyed since its publication, to its failed brethren. Without those first seven efforts, I doubt whether my debut would have projected such a confident voice, or been rendered skillfully enough to captivate a large number of readers.
Bad Decisions Make Good Stories
And then there's the personal failures. Loving the wrong women. Working crummy jobs. Failing your friends and family. The heartache, the betrayals, the dashed hopes. I mean, really, what the heck would I have to write about if it weren't for these? My new novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, is practically a catalog of my personal failures, viewed at a slight distance, through a fictive lens. I couldn't have written the book if my first marriage hadn't dissolved. If I hadn't taken a caregiving job for $9 an hour in my mid-30s. If my own life hadn't bottomed out. Yet again, my failures served me well, informing my writing in ways no amount of success could ever do.
Bottom Line: Failure is your friend
The fact is, if you want to be any kind of writer, you are going to need to embrace failure on any number of levels. As an artist, you have to risk failure if you want your work to have a sense of urgency. As a prospective author, you must learn to expect failure and rejection, and not let it discourage you. As a human being, you must learn to plumb the depths of your greatest failures and shortcomings, so you can turn them into something deeply affecting for readers.
Jonathan Evison's third novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, is out now on Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. His last novel, West of Here, was a New York Times bestseller.