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Question of the Month: Failure

by Susan Henderson on June 1, 2016

Tell me about a time in your life that looked like failure and became something positive.

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I just got back from a trip to Peru, where we slept on a boat at night and hiked through the Amazon by day. I’ll share more about the trip next month, once I’ve sorted through the photos. Our kids are still there, wanting to stay on a few days without parents. It was a phenomenal time, and I love how close my boys are and how much they laugh when they’re together.

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So, the book is done. “Done.” And now it’s going out to my most-trusted readers. But I wanted to talk here about some of the reasons it took me five years to write this book.

 

Reasons one and two are easy. Writing a novel is hard work. There is the effort of emptying that first draft out of your head and heart. Then comes the harder step (for me, anyway) of shaping and deepening the novel and discovering what it really wants to be about.

 

A third reason why the novel took so much time was that my kids were finishing high school, applying to college, and then making that transition. And life comes first.

 

But reason number four is that I ran into a big snag, one I didn’t realize until I was five years and 54 chapters in. It was just before this past Christmas, my boys were due home from college, and I sat in a chair by the tree we’d just decorated with my printed out novel and started to cry. Because it wasn’t going to work. It didn’t need another tough edit (and there were many, believe me). It really, no-kidding-around wasn’t going to work. So I just cried with that hard truth and let it sink in.

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The next day, one boy came home, and then another. It felt unbelievably good to have them close. They asked about the novel, and I told them about its failure—because I think it’s important to share things like that, how you can work hard and still not reach your goal and it sucks and life is still good. Vacation continued with music and fires and walks and home-cooking and teenagers coming in and out of the house.

 

I wasn’t planning to think about the lost novel over winter break, but things churn in the back of your mind when you relax and focus on other things.

 

And what I started to realize is the reason the book hadn’t been working, edit after edit, was because I had two ideas that didn’t belong together, like conjoined twins who were entirely separate beings except that they were mistakenly attached.

 

So, the next day, because I couldn’t help myself, I began to surgically separate the conjoined novels. I scooped the messy cuttings into two separate folders and was happy to leave them there a while without thinking about them further. But one of the novels began to call desperately for me. Because the town and the surviving characters, so grateful not to have a plot thrust upon them, began to tell me the story they wanted to tell.

 

I simply listened and wrote. Sometimes I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up. And four months later, it was done. I saved maybe 30 pages from the original conjoined thing it had been.

 

I’m happy with the story, which was written not from the head but from some subconscious place. I’m a very heady person, so this was new for me.

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Lately, the other half of the conjoined novels has been calling me, but the story doesn’t belong to those gentle characters I had thrust it upon. The second story wants to be told by quite a different team, and I am trying to listen more than steer. I’m not pinning any expectations on what I write or how fast I write it or whether it becomes a novel or something much shorter.

 

Anyway, I feel I’ve emerged from a long journey wiser (and grayer) than when I set out. And now I have two books, not one. I mean sort of. And I have generous, talented, big-hearted people helping. How grateful I am for that!

 

Would love to hear your stories about process or failure or whatever you want to chat about in the comments.

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As always, I’ll close with a list of books I read since my last blog post:

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: A Poem

Mary Gaitskill, The Mare

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath

Alice Sebold, Lucky: A Memoir

Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares

Edith Pearlman, Honeydew: Stories

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Jim Daniels, Jane McCafferty, Charlee Brodsky, From Milltown to Malltown

Ron Carlson, At the Jim Bridger

David Margolick, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter House-Five

Don DeLillo, Underworld

Elana Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

Rob Roberge, Liar: A Memoir

Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves: Stories

Toni Morrison, Home

Ruth Ozeki, All over Creation

Lauren Groff, Arcadia

John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Larry Levis, The Darkening Trapeze

Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train

Bruce Bauman, Broken Sleep

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

Noon magazine, 2016 issue

 

And a few re-reads:

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Marilynne Robinson, Home

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing”

 

Oh, and one that Mr. H read to me:

Magnus Mills, All Quiet on the Orient Express

 

Let me end with this beautiful piece Dylan Landis brought to my attention: Learn this: you don’t write in competition with others.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim Chinquee June 1, 2016 at 2:35 am

Thanks for this generous post. I love your book so much, as you know!. Admire you and your commitment.

Love your reading list!

Biggest thing that looked like failure to me: Chicago Marathon, 1998. Really high expectations, hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon. A lot of physical failure: allergies, hyperventilating, dry heaving, etc. Metal challenges, re-setting goals, etc. But still finishing. Lessons.

Thanks for this! xo.

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Dominique June 1, 2016 at 10:47 am

Hi Susan!
I LOVE reading your experiences and insights and can understand FULLY what you are on about…

How wonderful that you have shared this with us. The book writing process and so tough and with (four children, 3 teens all still home!) I find it SO hard to separate my work and feel so on edge all the time because just when I feel like I have captured its essence, the kids need to be fetched etc etc.
So I can relate to your disappointment and frustrations and all but cherish your sentiments about family first. That’s really all that counts in the end.
I look forward to reading your book (or two hopefully ) when it comes out, knowing now how you struggled to get it out there to us.
And thanks too for your book list-!
Warm wishes Dominique
(Going to look for you on Twitter again though know you don’t dwell there much…hope that this gets to you in interim ..not sure where best to reply!)

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Susan Henderson June 1, 2016 at 11:14 am

Hi Domingue!

Thanks for your support along this long journey. I don’t know how I would finish anything without this writer community and knowing we’re not alone in our struggles.

Though having kids makes writing a more interrupted process, they also put the frustrations and disappointments into perspective so much faster. Don’t you think? I also feel like taking more time to write encourages me to go deeper because I’ve had more time to sit with the characters and the material. Although maybe this is just how I put an optimistic spin on what can be a grueling process. : )

I’m on Twitter as “LitPark” but I feel like I still don’t know how to use Twitter. Maybe some day it’ll click.

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Susan Henderson June 1, 2016 at 11:19 am

I’m sure you already know, but you’ve been a lifeline through this whole process. You know that, right?

I love that you told a story of physical failure/triumph! I think it helps to clarify the journey when seen through the body. I’m in awe of your running and all you have to battle to do it.

xo

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Kim Chinquee June 2, 2016 at 4:26 pm

Thank you! And likewise! xo.

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Matt Waters June 1, 2016 at 4:00 am

Inspiring to read! It is awesome that taking distance from your book inspired a breakthrough. When I first applied to grad school back in 2011 I was pretty sure I wanted to be a screenwriter. I sent my screenplay to NYU and hoped for the best. I also applied to the New School’s creative writing program because I had recently been taking prose workshop. An interesting thing happened where I realized prose was a better fit for my talents, but I still was holding onto the now outdated logic of the initial decision. It turned out that I did not get into NYU — and it was two very long days wondering what the hell I was going to do. I hadn’t heard back from the New School but my hopes were down. I was thinking of potentially relocating out of New York City entirely. I was definitely perceiving a negative thing had happened and would be followed by another — but luckily I found out literally the next day that I had made it into the New School program — which was, by FAR, the best thing that could have happened to me. So I guess this is one negative outcome that turned out for the best — but also proof that several disappointing things won’t happen consecutively “just because.”

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Susan Henderson June 1, 2016 at 11:07 am

Hi Matt,

I love this story you’ve told. I feel like that’s a lesson I keep re-learning — holding on to outdated logic or outdated ways of defining myself. I think closed doors are often as helpful in life as open doors, it just takes longer to appreciate and process them.

Glad you’re here!

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billie hinton June 1, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Love that you stuck with this book all the way through the very hard part of knowing it wasn’t working and then giving it the space to tell you what needed to happen.

A failure that led to something positive: my freshman year of college was a disaster. I was in pre-vet and one among hundreds in every class. Newly-discovered freedom and the beginnings of confidence led to a lot of going out and listening to music and dancing and not getting to classes that weren’t engaging me at all. I failed, came back and switched majors to the English department, where I was getting a lot of attention. That wasn’t the end of that journey but it was a place where in hindsight failure led directly to something good.

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Susan Henderson June 1, 2016 at 3:52 pm

Nothing feels better than beating something you don’t think you’ll survive.

Love your story. So many times we feel like we failed and it makes us shift our direction or how we behave and leads us somewhere so much better.

How about an update on your kids and animals? : )

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billie hinton June 2, 2016 at 2:01 am

Since the last LitPark post we’ve had one of our kit-meows in the vet school ICU with congestive heart failure and another one had outpatient surgery to drain a nasty abscess. Although I didn’t continue in pre-vet in my freshman year of college, I still have a vet clinic in my house! 🙂 Both patients are home and healthy now. One getting meds AM and PM to help with his heart issues but we are so grateful he came home!

My daughter is preparing to attend college in the fall after taking a gap year. I can’t wait to see her path unfold. (She doesn’t like me to share a lot online so that’s all I’ll say)

My son was offered a 10-week Summer REU in physics at UCLA for this summer (he’s at UNCA double majoring in pure mathematics and physics, going into his senior year in the fall). We decided that I will fly out with him early so we can visit grad schools before his research gig begins, so we’ll be flying to San Francisco and visiting Berkeley, Stanford, UC-Santa Cruz, UC-Santa Barbara, and Caltech. I’m so excited to get to do this with him! We’ll get to visit my stomping grounds in Los Gatos and Hollywood and are driving down the coastal highway too. I can’t believe he’ll be heading to grad school in a year.

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Susan Henderson June 2, 2016 at 3:47 pm

I know so well about the in-house vet. Since we last talked, Steve (our greyhound) had a toe amputated (it was cancerous and we were terrified the cancer was in the whole leg). They fused two of the remaining toes together to give him better balance. We moved a mattress into our living room for almost two months for the rehab. I can relate to the worry and love and labor you’ve been through with your little ones’ recovery.

I’m such a fan of gap years. Your kids are so smart and creative. I can’t wait to find where they go in their lives. So cool about the summer work! Would love to hear more. My oldest is off to France today for a 3-month summer job doing cryptography. My youngest is looking for summer work in the film industry but will teach guitar if he has to.

I’m still drowning in all the laundry of packing and unpacking and frantic errand-runs. Feel like it’ll take a couple more days for my head to quiet down!

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billie hinton June 3, 2016 at 1:50 pm

So so glad that Steve is doing well now – what an ordeal for him and for you! The amazing thing to me is how well animals can move through these medical issues and come out the other side still being such loving, trusting beings. Mystic (who was in the ICU) was such a sweetheart while there everyone involved fell in love with him and carried him around in their arms all day once he was off the ventilator. And when he goes back for cardio appts. there is a rush to see him.

How exciting for your oldest to be in France doing cryptography all summer!! And I love that your youngest has such a great back-up with his guitar talent and knowledge.

You might enjoy seeing his undergrad research video from the spring. One of his physics professors, Dr. Michael Ruiz, helped start the national undergraduate research symposium that happens all over the country each year and since it was held at UNCA this spring he took huge numbers of photographs and I think tried to video all the presentations. Here’s a link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=RyVAHHBS8Bc

My absolute proudest moment is when he so sincerely thanks his mentor Dr. Perkins whose expression is priceless.

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Susan Henderson June 3, 2016 at 2:39 pm

So glad our furry family members are on the mend.

The moment I clicked on the YouTube I busted out laughing with that title! I only know half the words and the others are being used in ways I don’t understand! 🙂

What a truly lovely presentation style he has. And that he can bring that high-level work into language I can understand is a gift.

Lucinda Kempe June 1, 2016 at 4:17 pm

I’ve been failing all my life or so it seemed. But perhaps my failings (wife, mother, daughter, actor, painter, writer) were just a long learning curve? The one thing I have never given up is writing – I began writing in a diary at age fourteen. And writing saved my life but sometimes the thing that saved my life feels like a failure too. But then I realize I’ve been writing to myself about myself (hopes, dreams, disappointments and fears and every thought that came into my head the moment I had it ecteras) for forty-three years. That’s a long time to have been jamming things down on paper or, as I do now, type into a document I am shaping into memoir. You asked us to give you an example of a failure that has turned into a positive. If nothing else (and the something else would be a published book of all this Knausgårdian spew as I call my present memoir, one I’ve been working on for fifteen years), then I’ve just done that – the fact of this fifty-seven-year-old woman, who despite a lifetime of failures, is still writing, still willing to tumble into the vertigo (Jim Harrison in The Paris Review said, “Vertigo is your friend”) of production with a goal in sight (integration) is a success!

I am failing now.

I try again. I am failing better.

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Susan Henderson June 1, 2016 at 5:12 pm

This is just gorgeous. xo

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Joan Wilking June 1, 2016 at 8:00 pm

So glad to read that the novel was taken over by the town and its wonderfully quirky people. I’ll look forward to reading it.

Failure? Three unpublished novels and enough short stories to comprise several collections, many of which have been published and/or won prizes, most recently a special mention in the Pushcarts, and still no book with my name on it. Not sure if that constitutes failure. Disappointment is probably a better word.

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Susan Henderson June 2, 2016 at 3:49 pm

It’ll happen, Joan. And when it does, it’ll look like you can write a book a year because they’ll come out one after another. 🙂

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Marilyn June 1, 2016 at 11:44 pm

Hi, Sue! As always, informative, inspiring…and honest. I loved reading about the process and parting of the stories. It made great reading. Also the piece by Colum McCann. Favorite line: “They’ll get up at dawn with a sore throat.”

I don’t even know how to address the question of failing…might send me into a state of total confusion about why I do what I do the way I do it…instead of sticking to that one thing…to perfection! But, the suggestion to just set up my studio with the easel, piano, laptop…whatever…and just go with what feels right at the moment, without guilt, was awesome!–gave me permission to carry on…and it felt great! 🙂

So glad you’re back. Can’t wait for the new book!

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Susan Henderson June 2, 2016 at 3:51 pm

Ooh, your use of the word “parting” of the stories makes me feel all powerful! 😉

I can’t tell you how much I love your studio being in sync with your many ways of creating and expressing yourself. It makes so much sense that you can walk to the project and the art form that is most alive each day. I talked a long while last night with a painter and thought of you.

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Marilyn June 2, 2016 at 6:01 pm

Thank you for thinking of me…and in case it wasn’t clear, and you have forgotten, that advice about setting up the studio that way was from you! (…along with many other encouraging and practical ones!!)

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Susan Henderson June 3, 2016 at 10:48 am

Every now and then, I have a good idea. : )

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Marilyn June 22, 2016 at 7:55 pm

I’d say quite often…and I hope I’m always around when it happens! 🙂
(Hope your book is proceeding full steam ahead!)

Jim Nichols June 2, 2016 at 2:43 am

Congrats, Sue! Can’t wait to read it!

They’re not failures, they’re temporary setbacks. Lots of ’em, me.

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Susan Henderson June 2, 2016 at 3:52 pm

Jim, Are you still flying? Give us a little flavor of Maine and your animals these days.

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Jim Nichols June 6, 2016 at 12:45 pm

I haven’t flown for some time…wasn’t doing it enough to stay ahead of the curve, which made it work instead of fun 🙁 As for animals…we’ve just had the alewive run, which means ospreys (we call ’em fishhawks), eagles, cormorants (shags) and gulls all over the place. A real show this time of year…sometimes early in the morning I’ll go out and stand on the deck and bow to three sides as 2-300 shags take off from the river, making a sound just like applause. It makes me feel appreciated…

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Susan Henderson June 6, 2016 at 2:13 pm

I knew you’d make my day with all those local names for animals. How lovely that it’s all right outside your door. Also, that line about applause belongs in a story.

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Jim Nichols June 6, 2016 at 4:47 pm

It is! My novel Hull Creek, Ch. 2 (was written to be the novel opening, but was pushed back so we could start with a little more drama…)

RIc Marion June 14, 2016 at 3:43 pm

yeah, yeah, late to the party, as usual.
Susan, I don’t look at events as failures – only learning experiences, or disappointments. One can learn from everything that happens, the good or the bad. It is the lessons that are important. I started writing a political column but when I started writing about growing up on the farm and school days, I got picked up by three newspapers. Was that a failure? or a disappointment? Or a learning experience?
Do you want to be a literary writer – with all the accolades that entails? Or do your words flow on the page like Stephen King or Nicholas Sparks? At what point do you simply go with what works?
Congrats on figuring out the next couple books, looking forward to them.
Life is wonderful here on the River. Family doing beyond great, Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous. Wife and I are heading to San Francisco to visit youngest in La-La Land next month. Summer is shaping up nicely, Four Weddings – middle son’s is next summer.
So much good stuff, and I have time to write, reflect, and savor the nuances of this existence I have created.

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Susan Henderson August 3, 2016 at 12:36 pm

Ric! I don’t know why I didn’t get a notification when you posted this. So sorry to be getting to it late!

So glad to hear your good news and your wisdom. And to be reminded of savoring what we have. Thank you.

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GC Smith September 26, 2017 at 3:12 pm

Failure:

Ah, a subject on which I am well versed.

My high school, a Catholic institution run by Nuns, invented a new category of diploma to allow me graduation. I had spent much of my high school years in the local pool hall not the halls of academia. My academic record was abysmal but my family was connected as the h.s. Principal and my Mother’s sister had been college roommates and were still best friends. So at aunt Rose’s instigation the school came up with a “general” diploma for me, the only one of that category ever granted (the school had heretofore granted either an academic or a business diploma). With the new one time only category I was snatched from the jaws of failure.

Then there was my first semester of college when I earned a 1.17 GPA of a possible 4.00. The Dean called me in to throw me out but I was able to bullshit him into a probationary reprieve. It took the remaining seven semesters to dig my way out of the hole in which I had buried myself but I managed.

Later, while in the PhD program at Georgetown University I had the chance to bring a grant worth millions to the school’s economics department but they were conservative and wouldn’t meet the required conditions, which were not stringent. So, I quit with no doctorate. But, I managed a thirty five year career as a Government economist without portfolio and had many studies, some in book form, published, so all was well in the end.

Now, post Government career I’ve written ten books (five novels, four poetry books, and one book of short stories). Agents liked my stuff but there has been no contract so nine are self published. My latest draft novel is out searching for a home but it seems likely not to find one unless I do what I did with the others and publish it myself. But what the hell, I sell a few, I collect a few bucks, and I have some readers. But, I write first for myself and then for whoever may want to read my stuff. It’s a hobby, a mental exercise, and I think a better use of my time than vegetating in front of the boob tube.

I’ve had plenty of brushes with failure, but I’m a happy man with my lovely wife Mimi, two great children, and two grandsons (one a natural part of the family and the other adopted from China) who I both love and enjoy. I’ve been retired for twenty four years and after pencil pushing for a living went into construction particularly home remodeling, which was fun and profitable. I play golf as much as I wish. I have good friends and an active social life.

Soon we will move from the South Carolina Lowcountry to upcountry, Greenville SC, where there are mountains and four seasons. I’m looking to spend a lot less time on maintenance and to that end we are buying a exterior maintenance free condo-townhome in the city. We’re ready to return to urban living.

Though I’ve frequently flirted with failure I’m a happy man and that in my book is success.

So, there it is.

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Susan Henderson September 26, 2017 at 4:28 pm

I have no idea why my ‘failure’ blog reposted itself, but am glad it prompted these incredible stories of your passion and achievements marching through side doors. A success story by my measure!

I can’t wait to hear how your life changes in the mountains!

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