Success: From Where Do You Come?

Courtesy of Poets&Writers

Courtesy of Poets&Writers

In a wistful (and drenched in a too high-hoped tone) article in Poets & Writers (watch a clip with one of the authors here), Emily Raboteau interviews three authors who commercially failed at their first publishing attempts, but are coming around this season with highly anticipated novels. Jennifer Clement, Miranda Beverley-Whittmore, and Nina Siegal all have one thing in common: failed sales early on in their careers. Editors retired, agents gave up on the project, and in Clement’s case, her book was published two days before 9/11. The roundabout conclusion Raboteau comes to at the end of her profile is that there’s no firm definition of “failure,” and the best way to get past that, is to keep on keepin’ on. Heard that before? Does it feel like we’re beating a dead horse over the head? Is it useful advice? Of course. As rejection letters pile in (sometimes multiple in one day, or within the same hour–that’s always a fun one), self-doubt inducing stress, and even getting stuck on material brings you down, you have to keep persistent, no?

When I think of failure specifically, I can just go back through my Chemistry binder from high school. But when we think of failure in terms of numbers, and digging even deeper to sales numbers, is our writing boiled down to the quantity of its marketability? Look at the books that sell on the mid list, they tend to follow the same tropes and plot points. Beverley-Whittmore went in that direction, after her editor at Crown jokingly suggested that she “Write a best-seller.” But is that what our writing is worth? A lot of writers can market their talents out to various publications, freelancing articles, features, and reviews. It’s a way to make ends meet.

But, when your work means something to you, having a good sale or a letter of acceptance from your favorite lit mag, it means the world to you. Clement stated in her interview with Raboteau, “I’ve never lost a strong feeling of wonder every time I see a book of mine in print and imagine someone reading it.”

The trick, it seems, is to find a happy medium. Sometimes your darlings, oh, they gotta go. They’re not going to help you further your career. See: a novel I wrote when I was ten. It was basically a gender-reversed matriarchal version of Lord of the Rings. “Before your book comes out you can suffer under the delusion that it’s going to change everything,” Siegal noted. “I though my first book was going to be a sensation, like Bridget Jone’s Diary. I thought it would lead to a TV show.” So, maybe it’s about being humble, and maybe it’s about being diligent, and a good self-critic. Sometimes, that journal entry you write at three in the morning isn’t going to become McSweeney’s top submission for the Pushcart Prize. And that’s just the way it is.

For right now, let’s pose the question of where you draw success. What are your triumphs of the day? Are they dictated by a specific word count? Do you spend a long time revising, and then writing new material, like Zadie Smith. Maybe having a routine doesn’t mean anything to you. How do you deal with failure? What is failure to you, at this very moment? What do you draw from when you’re down in the gutter?

Source: Raboteau, Emily. “If at First You Don’t Succeed….”Poets&Writers, March/April 2014, pp. 55-58.


  1. Jacob Anderson

    Failure is inaction. A rejection is just a letter from someone who doesn’t like you. That being said there are about seven billion other people who might be interested in you and your work. Unfortunately not a lot of them have have publishing companies. Not doing what you enjoy is failure.
    I spend all day writing in my head. I want more of this on paper, but I think when I am moving. Walking my dogs, I see gun fights raging in dark shadows. When I drive my car I am plotting a new escape route from a zombie herd. I spend more time thinking of sword moves in the shower the I do soaping up.
    Goals? Work flow? Schedule? I know not the meaning of these words. I spend most of my time avoiding the process. And when I do write, it’s like some sort of seizure, words pour out of the tips of my fingers not having bothered with a stop over in my brain.
    Word, scene, action, characters all come out at once, like bile and phlegm. They burn with authenticity and meaning, tied together a long messy cord vomited inch by inch on to the page.
    Sometimes the only thing that makes me want to keep writing are the voices in my head. The stories I tell my self while I go walking, or driving, or standing waiting for the train. They bubble up in the back of my mind, chattering jay birds silencing the world with their clamor.
    I don’t hold to the delusion that I’ll get published. This is not a good thing. I’ve never been one for faith. Expect the worse and accept what comes, bad things will happen. Then again, if you never do anything good things won’t happen either.

    • @ Jacob Anderson

      Oh the writing seizures…

      Yeah I pretty much agree with what’s been said. I’d like to add if one never gives up one never truly fails. That’s not always true but in writing I would wager that it is. For me, failure is usually associated with some sort of regret. If I go out and try hard and lose it’s not always such a big deal. If I chicken out and lose, well that’s just disappointing. I find that I am most disappointed at my own failure whenever I know I have the opportunity to do something and still choose not to. Another symptom to let me know I’ve failed is when I have a plan in my head and then somehow I don’t follow it. I don’t feel failed when I get a rejection letter, I feel failed when I don’t submit anything for a while. It’s human nature to suck at things at first and then to learn and get better.

  2. Alyssa Fuerholzer

    Success and failure are obviously so tricky to define because they mean different things to different people. Especially in the publishing industry, I think it’s important to be realistic. In John McNally’s Creative Writer’s Survival Guide, he says that it’s important to define your goals versus your desires and wishes. Getting a short story published is a goal. Winning the Pulitzer Prize is a desire, and may be unrealistic. Still, just because something is unlikely to happen doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I think success is setting goals for yourself, no matter how small (like a daily word count), and then meeting those goals. If you set your sights too high right away, everything is going to feel like a failure even if it’s not. For me, it’s important to just keep writing and hope for the best, to define my goals and try to meet them.

  3. Oh, failure. How I have felt the bitter sting of your wrath this odd couple months. Considering that I do not have many big successes involving my writing, I don;t have much to say on the matter except that you literally cannot just stop because of a pink slip that writes YOU off before you’re even hired. I notice that my worst habit when I am down and in the dumps, is looking at the successes of the people around me. Now this is both good and bad because although this gives me hope, it also makes me question quite literally, “what am I doing wrong? Why did they get in and not me?” For me personally, this is the worst thing that you can do to yourself when you’ve just felt the harsh slap of a rejection. But I do it anyway because humans are odd creatures and like to torture themselves in hopes that self-pity will awake some beautiful always right writer within us.

    I know what people say because they’ve said it to me. Rejections/failure’s are like scars for writers, you take them in and harbor them on your body to remind you that you fought and so you can point at them later and think about how far you’ve come. It sounds beautiful and it is, but it’s hard to bare scars humbly and quietly because yes, even when they are metaphorical, they hurt. So this is what I do. I write down the little things. The little successes I have had from writing whether it be getting published or having an awesome reaction from someone that it causes a change in them and therefore, in yourself. I think I would be mad and no longer in school if it weren’t for the little things.

    Like they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

  4. Failure is a subjective state to be reckoned with by the individual. I imagine there are degrees of failure, but whenever I think of this, I wonder which level I’m occupying now, and it is a generally unpleasant structure. With that said, I do believe that failure in something as inclusive as writing certainly pertains to the writer in question. Not writing, for example, may be a good indication of failure, but not necessarily, and perhaps not even in most cases. A writer may consider himself a failure if he is never published—if this is the goal he set for himself and he failed to meet it, then yes, certainly, he has failed. I do not think I mean this to be as bleak as it sounds, but because writing is for the most part a solitary, individual pursuit, one must be self-driven to accomplish anything at all. Part of that is setting goals. Not all goals will be met.
    When I think of my total and absolute failure, it comes down to me no longer being able to support myself for whatever reason. I would far prefer to be too exhausted to write and working two or three jobs if need be. If I’m not writing, I will not be happy, but if someone else is paying my rent and buying my groceries, I do not think that writing would be a viable option. And I do not know if that is the sort of thing that one can come back from, but I certainly hope I never have to find out.

  5. I feel like if one never fails at anything, they aren’t trying or pushing themselves hard enough. In today’s market when all the common people want to read are vampires, steamy sex scenes thinly veiled under the guise of feminism, and the ever-enduring “Struggle” of the straight white male, it’s easy enough to put together a formula for a “best seller”. But for those of us who aren’t aiming for fame, and take writing seriously as an art, where does that leave us?

    Rocking back and forth behind a mountain of rejection letters, or at least in my case. Each letter elicits that little voice in my head that tells me I’m a failure, but then I remember just how many famous authors and works were rejected multiple times before reaching notoriety.

    Basically, I take each rejection as an opportunity to reevaluate my piece, and just hope that next time will go better. I also have to keep in mind how many different markets there are. Just because a piece doesn’t tickle one publication doesn’t mean it won’t do it for somebody else.

  6. Everyone is doomed to fail at some point or another, it just depends on what you take from it. You can fail at a test or a relationship or even walking down the street, but that doesn’t keep you from trying. Instead we learn from the things we fail at. We remember that one answer we got wrong and we remember the things we don’t do well at, because we learn from it. We learn that gravity exists and that we can’t jump off of roofs into pools without breaking a few bones or at least getting a terrible burn from hitting the water, we learn that when we don’t know how to swim not to try and jump straight into the deep end without someone watching. Instead we learn to swim, we learn how to fly, we learn how to do math, because if we don’t then what will we do? We’re doomed to fail, our bodies will eventually fail too and we can’t just live in fear of failure we have to clean out the rot and rebuild. We have to take failure post it on our walls and use those as fuel for moving forward, because we are never the person we were when we sent that story in, we might have sent it in with the most glaringly obvious spelling error and we may be expecting that letter or rejection, if it comes. But we move on, or at least we should, it’s what all the great writers can be quoted on. That when something got rejected, and it almost always did, they kept trying. Very few books that we know and love would be around if the writers gave up after failure. It may hurt more to succeed and then get hit upside the head with failure once you’ve thought you’ve already passed, but that just means we can do better next time. It isn’t failure, not really, unless you give up.

  7. I feel with each passing moment that my idea of what success means gets smaller. When I started at Columbia, I had an idea of becoming a (financially) successful author, but that stuff isn’t important to me anymore. Success for me is writing something that I actually like and feel proud of (which almost never happens). Anything that happens after that, from having it go over well in a workshop class to being published, is a bonus, but I have to start from the ground up. The second I start to wonder what will happen with it down the line, the writing gets much worse. I feel like I see that in other writers too, where if they seem to care about the craft and getting better, they do and if they are certain that they are destined for success, the writing suffers. I know at this point that I’m not a great writer by any stretch of the imagination but I see that as something to strive for rather than a failure. To me, success starts with crafting a solid sentence which is difficult enough. The idea of somebody feeling like a failure because their first book didn’t sell is pretty far removed from my understanding of things. I have to take it one small step at a time.

  8. I agree with what a lot of students are saying so far. I don’t measure failure by the number of credits I have to my name. Those things feel great, of course, and I love posting a link up for my friends and family to see. But that’s not the pinnacle of success for me. Sometimes the things I get published aren’t even the efforts I’m most proud of. I feel successful when I’m done a 7 hour writing rampage when I totally lost track of time and spilled out some thousands and thousands of words. That feels like success.

    Lately, I’ve felt successful whenever I get the pen to the paper or the words onto the computer screen. The last few months have thrown me many obstacles that have demanded the majority of my attention, so whenever I find time to actually sit down and write, I feel like I’ve accomplished something HUGE. A year or two ago, I wouldn’t have thought I’d be in this mindset where I would literally have to trick myself to get the writing done. But these things fluctuate, and instead of getting anxious and frustrated, I just have to enjoy the moments when I do write. And it’s important to dwell in these little successes.

  9. My dad always told me, “Hope for the best, but expect the worst.” I have always kept this mantra in mind in all aspects of my life including my writing. When I send work out I hope that good things will happen. Yet at the same time I’m fully aware and ready to hear, “Thank you for your submission, but…” I like to keep my expectations low because if something good does happen then I’ll be pretty surprised and excited. It’s much better than being disappointed and upset.

    My triumph of the day is basically if I wrote. Period. But writing about something meaningful. Not just whining in my journal about the way businessmen smell on the train after a long day of work. Chipping away at stories, avoiding the technological distractions, and turning off my Netflix stream of One Tree Hill—these lead to my everyday writing successes. Of course there’s more to it. When I read—really read and dissect work—this is also another writerly success! Being in tune with the work and writers out there in the world also is another triumph of my day. Being a writer is more than putting pen to paper.

    To me, failure is not being true to myself in writing or not working as hard as I know I can. Failure is not about being published, but about whether or not I’m trying to get my work out to the public. There are other aspects to my idea of failure, but the gist of what I’m trying to get at is that my failure and success is defined slightly differently from others.

    Because I feel as though I still have this wonderful future ahead of me I can still take rejection. Failure makes me feel like I’ve earned something. I didn’t give up. I kept pushing and working and revising and writing. If everyone were given things easily then we wouldn’t bother to try. The end result doesn’t feel as satisfying because there was no journey. No falling off the horse and getting back up.

    At the same time I know what it feels like to be afraid of rejection and never trying. A quote from the guilty pleasure film Take Me Home Tonight sums it up: “You haven’t really failed…because you haven’t really tried to succeed.” You’ve just got to keep trying. I got a rejection from the Storyweek Reader a few weeks ago. It didn’t sting as much as the first time I got a rejection from them. I expected their response therefore I prepared myself. I was able to move on from it. I’m still breathing and writing.

    Recently I’ve been having a crisis. I keep questioning whether or not my stories are worth being told. Who really wants to read about a boy living in the movie theater befriending a recovering pathological liar? I hope someone does because I’m working on that story, but of course there’s going to be people who don’t want it. Understandable. When I’m feeling down it’s nice to go back to the stories that inspired me to become a writer. Mostly the stories of movies: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Darjeeling Limited, Dazed and Confused. If these stories weren’t told I wouldn’t be who I am today. I wouldn’t have anything to relate to or be entertained by. I needed these things. I try to keep in mind that I was given a voice because maybe someone out there needs to hear it. This helps me get through those rough patches and keeping on writing.

    We learn the most about life and ourselves when we’ve failed. This is a fact of life, but it can also be material for story. Characters that hurt, feel, and experience disappointments are relatable. Usually this is where stories start. Failure can be seen as a new start. Like our characters, the interesting part comes when we’re trying to recover from a failure.

  10. Corey Klinzing

    I can’t really call it a failure unless I haven’t learned something, or haven’t tried. Hell, most rejections or major flops in publishing (like your book coming out two days before 9/11… ouch) are based on timing and bad luck, not anything the author did. Sure, there are some legitimately bad novels out there that didn’t sell well, but in my opinion, just as many of them make it to the New York Times bestseller’s list. It’s a blend of what’s hot right now on the market, how well your publisher advertises for a book (do they buy you a space on the Barnes and Noble table, or are you shunted off to a bookshelf at the back of the store?).

    Even when trying to publish something in a magazine, a rejection could mean that it just wasn’t a fit for that particular venue, or that they have too many of whatever-story-you’re writing, and have already paid the other guys. It never means that maybe your piece wasn’t good.

    So, for those of us still trying to publish, you look over the story one last time for errors and plot holes, you research a new market and send it out. Or you start your next novel.

    The only failure is giving up.

  11. Monica Chapman

    Failure is something I have always been frighten about. I can’t stand failing. I think it mostly has to do with the school I went to for eight years. The kids I went to school with, failure was never an option for them. They always felt that to fail at something or get rejected, that’s the end of the line for you and that you should feel embarrassed. And for the longest time, I did. Yet you can never be perfect. Sometimes you just have to accept it.
    The publishing world is something that has slightly frightened me because I feel like if I send out something, they won’t even look at it or feel the same way about my piece as I do. I have fears that it won’t do well outside of my room and that it will sink really far into the ocean where no one can see it. Yet, that’s life. If you put it out there, how would you learn for the next time?
    In order to pick yourself back up, you have to get the courage to keep going. Yeah it’s hard at first and you feel like crap, but just going at it really helps. You just have to keep being your best and say “That’s okay” while humming the tune of “Confidence” from the Sound of Music (well you don’t have to do that, but that helps me). You just have to take to to read, and re-read, and just think about your work and feel sure of yourself that it’s time. Failure or not, if you are proud of it and it works, then just go for it.

  12. Anne Marie Farrell

    I failed once academically. Last year I received an intimidating, debilitating ‘F’ on a one credit elective that I hated so much that I stopped going. I didn’t tell my parents, I didn’t tell my brothers, or my friends, or anyone at all because I know what they would say of my failure.
    Can I tell you something, though? I was relieved. It was difficult to explain- when I first saw that stupid letter on my transcript- but it was an incredible release of emotion. I’d failed. I’d never failed. I’d finally failed.
    While it’s not something I’d like to do ever again, I feel like it’s given me permission in a way that nothing else has. I did not enjoy the class, it was too late to drop or withdraw, since it was at the end of the semester, so I just stopped going. I’ve always been taught to “stick with it” and “you can make it through for such and such a time”. Those words have helped me get through a lot, they’ve taught me a lot, and I’m thankful for them. But this time…this time just wasn’t worth it. And that taught me something to: it’s okay to let go. I let go of something I wasn’t passionate about, something that I had no desire to learn anything from and had no interest in or need for. I tried it, I hated it, I let go of it.
    I’ve started applying that to my writing. So if something doesn’t work, I set it aside. And if when I come back to it, I still don’t like it, I stick into a neat little folder on my desktop. Not quite gone forever, just out of my way. I don’t feel bad about it, like I used to. If something is not working, it’s not working, and I can’t force it to.
    I think the only way to truly fail in your writing is to not try. “If you tried, you didn’t fail”. Remember that? You know, I think I first heard that in first grade. Why did I abandon it?

  13. Jennifer Bostrom

    There are many cliches I could use to describe persevering through the failures, or perceived failures. Sticks and stones and all those other sharp objects sometimes don’t seem to hurt as much as those words that tell you the piece you put a lot of hard work into wasn’t good enough. But the comment that keeps cropping up in classes and when we’re researching websites is “what we’re looking for.” There will always be a publishing telling you that what you’ve written isn’t “what we’re looking for.” And that’s okay, maybe it’s mutual, if you aren’t what they’re looking for you probably don’t want to be looking at them either because chances are you might not get along throughout the rest of the creative process either.
    I’ve definitely experienced the sting of rejection, and it didn’t come in letter form first. It came from people who frowned, still frown, and get confused when I tell them I want to be a writer. I might as well tell them I’m hoping to make it to the moon with a fire extinguisher propulsion system because they seem to think I’m just as likely to be successful in that pursuit as I am at writing. So I’ve taken the disbelieving looks I’ve gotten from friends or family and attached the same level of care to rejection letters. Sticks and Stones. I want to be a writer, I am a writer, I should say I want to be a published writer, and it’s going to happen if I can maintain the wherewithal to brush off the rejections.

  14. Alyssa McGrail

    Failure is definitely something that haunts every normal human being. I believe that it gives us great weakness, but also gives us great strength. As writing students at Columbia College Chicago we all have heard the disclaimer for this career path, and that is that we will be experiencing a ton of failure. I’ve learned through experience that we got to use the failure as fuel to better ourselves and learn from our mistakes. The idea of “keep on keepin’ on” seems easy when it comes to mind, but when you are truly tested with it, it really hits you in the face. It is important for all of us writers to build a thick skin through these rejections and failures.

    I really like the point that was made about our stories we have been working on since we were ten and how we sometimes need to take a step away from our story, since we form such an attachment that we think it can be the best thing to ever become print. I have been a victim of this, and I look back at the lame plot spinoff I did and feel embarrassed by it. The description is wonderful, but the plot is horrid. All I can say is I am glad I went college and made my writing better because that stuff is cringe-worthy. And with that, I think it is really important to look at ourselves as scholars of writing, we have an advantage because we have been trained to be excellent writers. A lot of writers out there don’t have a degree, and they still get jobs remarkably. It’s good to be positive about your strengths and weaknesses to motivate yourself to keep moving forward.

  15. For me, I think everyday I get up and write is an accomplishment. Its the moment I look down at my finished 100,000 or so word piece and sigh. Rejection is hard because its like telling a parent their baby isn’t quite good enough, but as long as you keep producing work and getting it out there, you’re not failing. The moment you let self-doubt worm its way so deep into your mind that it takes over your writing, you’ve failed. I always like to set little goals for myself. “I’m going to write 2,000 words today” or “I want at least one story published by the end of the year.” Having these small attainable goals can help boost your confidence. Yes, I have that giant wish in the back of my mind to be that next amazing author, but its like lowering your expectations, getting to that bigger goal is a happy surprise rather than a disappoinment.

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