During the holidays, at a cocktail party, someone asked me how my novel was coming. Can I buy it yet? Another Christmas, I thought, another year where nothing had changed on the outside. I dreaded annual events and these questions to which I had no good answers. But neither did I want people not to ask me about my writing. It was all impossible. But this past Christmas, at this party, standing there holding a glass of wine, no words came out of my mouth. Nothing. A friend standing next to me jumped in, but I came away from the party wondering what was happening to me.
These days, I go to AWP mainly for the people. My writing friends are spread out all over the country, but at AWP a lot of us are in one place at one time for a few days. Sometimes I do attend a panel–if a friend is one of the panelists, if I want to hear a particular writer speak, or if a really interesting topic happens to coincide with really interesting panelists. That was the case for a Friday panel, Fail Better: Successful Writers Talk About Failure, with, among others, Roxane Gay and Rebecca Makkai.
Here was the panel description: “Rejected stories, unfinished novels, bad reviews, poor sales, unmet expectations–failure is an unavoidable part of the writer’s life, and yet we rarely acknowledge it. In this lively and honest conversation, five writers will share their experiences and reflect on questions of success and failure. How do you define success for yourself when the literary world can feel like a zero-sum game? How does failure, by any measure, affect your work? And what does it mean to fail better?”
At the beginning, two of the panelists, Megan Stielstra and Roxane Gay said that what their bios did not say was that it had taken them twenty years to get where they are. The rest of the panel was as you might expect, and then the panelists took questions. This is where, if I go to a panel, I usually leave, but the room set-up made it obvious if someone left. So I stayed. A woman in the audience stood and asked, “When you were struggling, what about the questions? When things were not going so well, how did you answer the questions about how your writing was going and where can we buy your book? How can we ask gentler questions?”
At that holiday cocktail party, when nothing came out of my mouth, it seemed I was literally losing my voice. Which contributed to my feeling that I had no idea what I thought or felt anymore. Which led to my January 13th post and this project. But in all the years that I’ve been learning how to write, I’ve been making progress. And as you know, I’m a look-on-the-bright-side kind of person. I focus on the good stuff, not the bad. Positive self-talk and all that. So this panel was the first time I put the word failure with what I had been feeling. But instead of making me feel bad, it was like one of Oprah’s Aha moments.
Dean Bakopoulos, a panelist, said he no longer associated failure with writing, only with how he lived–whether or not he was kind. Someone else suggested separating writing from publishing. As in well, the writing part of writing is going great, but the publishing part of writing is out of my control. Another panelist said the fact of the matter is writing is HARD, but the only way you can fail at writing is to quit. These five writers were proof; they were now Successful Writers Talking About Failure.
It wasn’t the cocktail-party questions that were the problem. And although knowing I wasn’t the only one fighting this beast was nice, the panelists’ answers were not the solution. As soon as I knew the beast I was fighting, I knew how to beat him. My writing is the best it’s ever been. I’m just about finished with a novel I feel confident about in every respect. And what’s more, in the last couple of months, and even more so in the last few days, my writing is closer and closer to that mysterious thing I’ve been working toward all these years–being able to express on paper what I’m seeing in my head, from tiny moments to entire lives.