One of the things I love to do in my writing day is take a lunchtime break to walk the dog and listen to a podcast. Recently, on one of the regular podcasts I listen to, author and entrepreneur Jennifer Cohen was being featured, and she said something that made me stop in my tracks. She said:
Failing doesn’t make you a failure, but quitting does make you a quitter.
Never has a simple phrase resonated so completely with me that it actually halted my motion… briefly, of course. I was out in public, after all. You see, I’m generally a persistent person. If something goes awry, or if I don’t achieve whatever my goal happens to be in any given area, my natural inclination is to ask, “Okay, what is the next step?” That is the way I see my life, in fact—as a series of steps that are never-ending. The moment I achieve “The Goal,” I’m looking for the next goal. That’s just the way I’m wired. It’s not a Type-A thing; I’m about as far from a Type-A personality as one can get. Rather, it’s an innate self-awareness that I’m never done, I’m never perfect, I’ve never stopped achieving.
Inevitably, for one whose path in life stretches ever forward, there are going to be stumbles, falls, detours and fails. That is why Jennifer Cohen’s quote resonated with me so profoundly. I’ve had many fails, but I would not for a second consider myself a failure. I haven’t failed because I’m not done. I’m not done anything.
This is especially true of my writing. I’m proud of how far I’ve come, and what I’ve been able to accomplish. But I am not where I want to be, and my journey is no where near complete. My challenges are never insurmountable, and my fails have not halted me in my tracks. And so, for those of you out there who maybe need a little bit of encouragement to keep pushing forward on your own journey, I’d like to share one of my epic fails as a writer that was painful, embarrassing… and yet was ultimately one of the best things to happen to my writing career.
The Epic Fail
Picture, if you will, the early 2000s and a twenty-something Veronica as fresh-faced and idealistic as a modern-day Jo March. My mother, who was so proud of her first-born daughter’s efforts to complete her first manuscript, entered the piece in a local contest with the Toronto Public Library to take part in the Writer in Residence program. Of the many submissions made to the program, only five aspiring writers would have the first five pages of their first chapter reviewed and critiqued by critically acclaimed Canadian novelist Elizabeth Ruth. And I was selected.
Upon arriving for the big day where my previously submitted first five pages were waiting for me, surely marked up with praise and admiration for my wicked-good wordsmithing skills, I walked into the library, up to the third floor, and asked the administrator behind the desk where Ms. Ruth’s office was.
“Oh, you’re one of the chosen,” she said reverently to me… as my head ballooned with confidence.
Well, that confidence was short-lived. In fact, it was soon smooshed into the industrial, short-fibre carpet under Ms. Ruth’s heel.
Now, I’m taking literary licence here. Elizabeth Ruth was extremely kind and professional. Her insight was laser sharp and her critique helpful and fair. But she effectively tore my work to pieces, and rightly so. Everything she had to say about it was spot on. And even though I felt like my soul had been drained of all that was good, her points and notes and comments were quite impactful. Three of those which have stuck with me to this day are:
- Choose your imagery, similes and metaphors carefully and deliberately so that they advance your writing rather than drag it down
- Know why you’re writing from the perspective you’ve chosen; if you’re writing in first person, let it be for a reason, because it can be a tricky perspective to write well
- Avoid being coy with the reader unless absolutely necessary; being coy for its own sake can be frustrating to read
I admit that I left in despair, with the realization that my dreams of walking out to find a publisher immediately would have to be re-evaluated. And within a day or two, I was able to see the meeting with Ms. Ruth for the way it actually had gone, rather than the way it felt at the time. It was simply an honest critique of my work, which was far too under-developed to be ready for the mass public. It was also within a day or two that I asked myself that same question I mentioned above: What are the next steps?
I decided that my next steps would be to put the manuscript aside, and focus on a new one, taking Ms. Ruth’s advice into consideration from the get-go, rather than trying to redraft the work I’d already done. That new work ended up being my novel Shadow, and I am so glad that I took this story on with a more mature approach, because it is such a special story to me. To this day, that first manuscript I wrote when I was in my early twenties remains unpublished. I have not attempted yet to revive it. And I am okay with that.
You see, I failed in my first attempt to create a publishable manuscript, but that certainly didn’t make me a failure. I’d failed in my attempt to impress an established, intelligent, multi-published author, but that did not make me a failure. The entire process was a phenomenal learning experience that was difficult to swallow in my youthful ignorance, but which made me stronger and more determined in the end to continue on with my pursuit, ever asking the question: What’s the next step?
And so, my epic fail did not make me a failure because it was never the end of my writing journey. And I am not a quitter, because I didn’t throw my hands up in the air and cry out, “I quit!” I suffered the defeat, let it demoralize me for a short while, then picked myself back up and asked, what is the next step?
It is the question I will keep asking myself as long as there is breath in my lungs to speak the words.
P.S. As I walked out of Ms. Ruth’s office, putting on an Oscar-worthy performance to appear confident and composed even though all I wanted to do was run to the bathroom and cry, I asked her how the five manuscripts were chosen. “Oh, it was a lottery,” she said. Ah, so being chosen had nothing to do with my wicked-good wordsmithing skills after all. Well played, universe. My youthfully over-inflated ego got your point.
Leave a Reply