I’m working today on the last chapters of my third book and, for some reason, this one’s like pulling teeth. I think it’s going to be my best yet – more intimate, better character development – but the path with this one has been uniquely excruciating. The good news is that my threshold for pain is higher today than when I started this writing journey, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll get to the other side. What I’m saying is: thank goodness for my failures.
In the still-unfolding story of my life, I mark the start of my big fat failures around seven years ago. At the time, I was living in Washington, D.C. with my husband Dan and working in the Obama White House. I was anxious, burnt-out, and unfulfilled. It felt, quite suddenly, like I was speeding through life without any attention to it at all; I was staying too busy to muster the courage to do the things I really wanted to do.
And so I decided to do them. First on that list: we wanted to have a baby. So Dan and I got to work. We worked and worked to no avail. We did all the things you’re supposed to do, and a bunch of other things too. I got acupuncture and took unregulated Chinese herbs; I meditated and prayed. Still, nothing happened. Finally, we went to one of those fertility clinics where all the powerful women of Washington spend their lunch breaks, and we found out that my hormones were out of balance. (We also learned that Dan’s sperm had “impressive motility,” which seemed a needlessly cheerful characterization in the presence of my faulty machinery.) It was heartbreaking.
Some time into this fertility misadventure, I decided that I needed a creative endeavor to take my mind off things. And so, like any urban 30-something who works seventy hours a week, I chose the banjo. Bluegrass music makes me happy and I’m a Vermont wildling at heart, so learning to play the banjo seemed perfectly logical at the time. Dan and his speedy sperm were characteristically supportive of this endeavor, despite the fact that it’s the loudest damn instrument to practice in a six hundred square foot condo.
So I went to my lessons and learned my rolls. I practiced mostly regularly and tried fairly hard. But I swear on Earl Scruggs that I didn’t improve a stitch since that first week. Over the course of many months, it became clear that I was incapable of learning this, or likely, any musical instrument. I had failed at my failure antidote.
Around the time that my banjo commitment was waning, I was coming around to the fact that there was only one thing I really wanted to spend my time doing. I needed to write the novel I’d been toying with for over a decade. It was a terrifying realization, but after so much failure, and in so many new flavors, I was feeling a batty sort of courage. And so I did.
The work was immersive and euphoric, exactly what I’d been missing all that time. I finished the book in six months and then dove right into all the necessary failures of the debut novelist. Finding an agent… finding a publisher… the rejection really drags out at this stage. The whole experience is like being broken up with, and fired from a job, and falling on your face in front of a high school crush – all day, every day. And there’s no time to recover from all the rejection because the reminders of your shortcomings just keep popping up unexpectedly in your in-box. “Thank you for your query. While we appreciated the plot structure, unfortunately this one wasn’t right for us…” Stop me if you’ve heard it before. At this time, I was still working at the White House, trying to get pregnant, and torturing my husband with the banjo while the rejection letters rolled in.
And then, all at once, it stopped hurting. I realized that I was still standing and still somehow laughing, despite the fact that I’d failed at everything I’d attempted in the previous few years. It was more than that: I was happy.
Discovering my own resilience wasn’t the only gift in all this failure. The actionable reward was that I discovered what I really wanted. Because not all failure is the same. In failing to get pregnant, Dan and I realized that we didn’t care how we became parents. It was the parenting that we wanted, the outcome alone. So we abandoned all our romantic preconceptions and decided that we’d just use fertility treatments or pursue adoption – whatever it took. With this clarity, things stopped feeling so hopeless.
I also realized that if you’re truly terrible at something and possess no ability to improve – as I was at the banjo – it’s not a passion, but a hobby. I could still pursue it, but I wouldn’t confuse it for anything more, or care if I continued to suck at it.
And finally, most critically, I learned that writing is the thing I can’t live without. Everyone has this thing; writing just happens to be mine. I know it’s my thing because no amount of failure can diminish the pleasure and purpose it brings me. I’d continue to do it if no one paid me or ever read another word I wrote. That’s how you know what your thing is.
Understanding the value of all this failure, and its powerlessness against me, was a revelation. It was also the end of it. We got pregnant on our second round of hormone treatments, and I found an agent in my third trimester. Our impossibly perfect daughter was born, and I wrote more and better stories that year. We got pregnant easily again, and soon after our second daughter was born, I got my first book deal.
There are still failures along the way, of course. I write bad things that no one wants to publish, and I do readings where only blood relatives show up. But those little failures just don’t sting as much as they used to. I expect them now as a necessary and maybe even constructive component in a writer’s life.
The greatest gift of all this failure has been clarity. I know now that the only things I can’t live without are writing, the outdoors, family and community. With this clarity (and a book deal) I quit my job and moved to rural Vermont with my husband and two girls. I focus nearly all of my energy now on the things that are so essential to my happiness that I don’t mind failing at them along the way. I’m a lazy cook and a negligent housekeeper, but I’m becoming a better writer.
And today, as this third book tears me apart, I’m grateful to be older and stronger than I was when I started. I’ll put everything into this work and gladly keep failing. Because this is my thing. Everything else is just the banjo.
Meg Little Reilly is the author of the novels WE ARE UNPREPARED and the forthcoming EVERYTHING THAT FOLLOWS (both published by MIRA/HarperCollins). Prior to writing books, she worked in national politics and for several government agencies. She holds a B.A. from the University of Vermont and an M.A. from George Washington University. In addition to writing novels, she is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a freelance writer, and an amateur homesteader in Vermont, where she lives with her husband and two daughters.
Category: On Writing