I know this sounds hilariously effete
February 20, 2012 2:50 PM   Subscribe

How do you prepare yourself for failure before it comes? What do you read or watch to allow yourself to let go when a labor of love has failed?

I'm working on a novel (first of course). I'm almost done. Every time I find a reference to another work that sounds just enough like it, it makes me want to cry because I'm terrified that I'm not original enough. And yes, I have had lots of rejection slips for stories before -- this feeling is new. I can't enjoy fiction anymore, or at least not the kind that I write, only old books. I can't really expect success with this thing. And yet I cannot give up. I am tired of giving up. It has to end, if for no other reason than to allow me to move on. So I am determined to finish on that account, but the despair is still in me.

You can probably tell I am a former overachiever and a perfectionist. My friends are really dear but I don't think they could help with this aside from "stop beating yourself up, it's fine, and even if it's not, what're you gonna do." I'm not religious so I don't have a lot to rely on.

Advice appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Seems to me that "failure" is when my mental model of what should and shouldn't work doesn't correspond to reality. When that happens I can either be disappointed that my mental model was wrong, or I can assimilate what I've learned from the process into my model and try to achieve my goals with the revised strategy.

Success is all well and good, but it also means I wasn't reaching far enough to really learn.
posted by straw at 3:02 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

You sound a lot like me, especially with the paranoia/inability to read books in the same genre I'm working in. If it helps, I recently (well, OK, a couple years ago) completed my MAGNUM OPUS, which I was proud of making SO original and SO unlike the other things in the genre... and the publisher, who had published two other fairly-derivative books of mine, refused my new one saying it was 'unpublishable', and citing all the things I had been so proud of as 'original' as examples of why no one would want to read this book, much less publish it. Originality isn't always a good thing; there's a reason we love the same old story even though it's been told before. By dint of coming from you (instead of cut and paste), your story WILL be original... or original enough. Just because your hero isn't the first hero to lose his girl and then get her back again, doesn't mean we don't want to hear what happened to HIM.

The last few bits of writing a book are like the last few dry heaves of vomiting, in some cases; painful and exhausting and you wish it would just be over... but after you're done, once you take a few deep breaths, you will feel SO much better! :) You can memail me if you like. Congrats on your new baby book!!!
posted by The otter lady at 3:03 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Did you read this Ira Glass quote?

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

so you can prepare yourself by failure by taking the philosophy that a few failures are necessary to practice for success? good luck!
posted by saraindc at 3:05 PM on February 20, 2012 [42 favorites]

I LOVE that Ira Glass quote. It's so true and such a helpful way of looking at that disconnect.

The kind of originality you're talking about is far, far from the first measure of success in fiction writing. To the point where it's been said that there are only seven basic plots. How you address your particular plot, the characters, the language, the dialogue - those will all come together to form something no one has ever written before. This is inevitable.

The flipside of this, of course, is that your first novel is probably terrible. Especially if you're on the first draft. That is FINE. That is how it works. That is why a) you will revise and rewrite it and b) why you'll write another one. Seriously. I have a heap of dusty pages that will never see the light of day, because wow, they're awful, but I learned a ton writing them, the second novel is galloping right along, and I see what I can improve and I can probably get the first one into some sort of submittable shape if I decide to. (I may not. I have more novel ideas than I have energy to write.)

This is probably a relevant question for you. The thing to keep in mind is that everyone is terrible when they start something new. You have to push through that to get good. That means you spend a lot of time being terrible.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:07 PM on February 20, 2012

My advice is to not be approval-seeking. Your work is your work, and you should trust it.

You may not sell this. You may sell it and hear that it is derivative. What you need to do to "prepare" is not care. Your work is what it is regardless of how others judge it.

(Obviously, as a professional you need a thicker skin and to take sincere criticism seriously and consider markets. My answer is about your labor of love, not the writing business.)
posted by Lesser Shrew at 3:11 PM on February 20, 2012

This is completely your perfectionism. Reacting to competition or jealousy with the urge to just give up is classic. Seeing your finishing a novel (a fucking personal accomplishment no matter what) as a failure because it may not be the most original is a consequence of setting an unreachable goal. The solution to this is to deal with your perfectionism and all the distorted thoughts contained therein. And finish your book! That's awesome.

Do not rob yourself of others work (or anything) because of your insecurities and fear. Whenever you feel yourself threatened by someone else's work realize it is because you have good taste, you recognize good art, and that this will further you in your own art. Oh so cliche but true: "Don't compare yourself to others; it will only make you vain and bitter."

Lastly, don't immediately disregard what your friends say re: "who cares" because, it's probably the reality; no one really cares but you. I have a friend who is so caught up in perfectionism about his work that he barely writes anything and wrings his hands over everything and worries, as you do, about being unoriginal, and it just kills me to see him stunt himself in every way. When really this work, however much it means to him, is his hobby and not the whole foundation on which his identity is built. One more quote: "if you set out to make a masterpiece, how will you ever start?"
posted by Katine at 3:19 PM on February 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

remind yourself that the world is not fair, and despite what a lot of the "optimistic" people would say, many times the odds are against you.

in your case: first time publisher of a novel, yea, you're chances of writing a best seller, or even just turning a profit, are small. think of "failure" as the default, as what is probably going to happen. then, if something does come of your novel it's "icing on the cake".
posted by cupcake1337 at 3:24 PM on February 20, 2012

Here's the video series that saraindc references, it's about 40 minutes long and goes into greater detail of how to be creative and "getting over the slump". it's a great watch.
Ira Glass on Storytelling
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
posted by hellojed at 4:02 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

I had a similar thing happen to me about a year ago, I really really wanted to turn a short story I had thought up into a comic, and I did. During the process, I learned that I actually couldn't draw at all, I hadn't thought out the plot very much, I was terrible at dialog, and...yeah. It was pretty much what I thought of in my head, and I ended up finishing it, but it's embarrassingly bad. I read it now and laugh at how bad it is.

At the end of the development of many games (and this applies to different media, but I think the term originates from game development) the developers run a "Post Mortem" where they find out what went Right, and what went Wrong. I do this whenever I finish a project. Typically, the only thing that went "right" were finishing the thing, and maybe 1 or 2 other things I pulled off in the process.

So when you finish it, look back and try to perform the same assessment. Apply those lessons learned to your future projects. Then tell your friends that you're a writer.
posted by hellojed at 4:27 PM on February 20, 2012

Oh man, I know how this feels. I'm not a writer, but I have been working on a web application for most of two years now. In the beginning, I wasn't aware all the complexities involved, and so I've been having to design for them along the way. I don't know how good the final product is going to be, but right now it's far from the intuitive tool I had originally envisioned (and there are many more complications and edge cases to account for). I dread testing it on real users, because I'm afraid of the results. And I dread launching it because I'm afraid it will be close to useless, and I will have wasted so much time on a stupid idea.

But I have to test and launch it, and soon. I'm graduating college this May, and my degree will have nothing to do with CS or design. I've had a couple paid programming gigs, but I'd still feel foolish applying for jobs without something concrete on my resume, and I've already spent hundreds of hours on this.

I'm not gonna lie--I sometimes despair. I see my peers getting into grad school and sending out their resumes while I feel held back by the very thing that used to inspire me. When I'm really feeling down, there's only one thing that helps, and it's remembering this:

I have learned SO much.

Seriously. I probably would have never gotten into web development/programming if it weren't for this potentially stupid, doomed-to-fail idea. I wouldn't have the skills for the part-time campus job I have now. I almost certainly wouldn't have learned the work habits, and ability to temporarily overlook my perfectionism, that I will need no matter what I end up doing. Had I, by chance, gotten into web development exclusively through working on smaller projects or other people's sites, I still wouldn't have the experience of designing and coding a major project. Even if no one ever uses my site, even if trolls mock it mercilessly, even if I end up leaving it off of my resume because it's so embarrasingly bad, it will have been worthwhile.

I know it wasn't this novel that got you into writing. But I'm sure you've still learned tons from undertaking such a big project. Most obviously, you've developed your writing skills. Whether or not this novel sucks, you can apply those skills to whatever you decide to create next. But you've also gained the sort of knowledge of your field and yourself that can only be won through experience. You know now what's involved (in time and emotional investment) in writing a novel. You know many of the pitfalls, and ways to avoid some of them if you decide to try again. You might have even discovered that you don't like writing novels very much, and would rather stick to short stories or other kinds of writing in the future. If that's the case, I still don't think you've wasted your time. Without this experience, you might still have "write my novel" on your to-do list, and be experiencing a distinctly less-accomplished form of angst!

There's nothing that AskMe can say that will totally erase the suck if your novel, indeed, sucks (or if it's just not marketable). It's always disappointing to put a ton of time and energy into something and see no returns. My only advice is to expand what you see as a return. Because even if you send this thing out and it doesn't go anywhere, you still have.
posted by randomname25 at 4:42 PM on February 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Think of this novel as a mere stepping stone to the next one. Never think of it as being a waste of time. Everything you do builds character. Every mistake you make now, is one less the next time. It has been said that it takes a human about 10,000 hours to be good at learning a skill such as playing an instrument. Think of this novel as part of those required 10,000 hours.

Very very few author's first works are notable and/or successful.

Finally, you might enjoy watching Mr. Hollands Opus.
posted by Land Ho at 5:57 PM on February 20, 2012

Last year I had to close the business I had built and loved for 15 years. In spite of all the wonderful achievements and memories, I couldn't help but think I had failed, and it ate away at me. One day a friend sent me an email with this quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. It helped. A lot.

"It takes as much courage to have tried and failed, as to have tried and succeeded."
posted by PlantGoddess at 7:42 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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