Why Writers Can't Actually Fail

Road sign with choice of success and failure. Layered file. System font used.
Road sign with choice of success and failure. Layered file. System font used.

I ran competitively when I was in high school. I enjoyed training and the camaraderie of my teammates and even my competitors at the track meets. I liked running as fast as I possibly could, and I liked how strong my body became, and how long I could run without getting tired. But I found the finish line a strangely confusing destination. Getting across it first seemed to mean more while I was crouched at the starting line than after I'd leaned through the tape. Win or lose, the race was over, and whatever consequences I attributed to my place at the end of it always felt more or less invented, like a story I would tell about Bill the Winner or Bill the Loser.

Years later I would begin pursuing a career as a writer. As careers went, this one seemed steeped in success and failure. Just as a marathon with 1,000 competitors can have only one winner, so too the world of writers appeared separated into haves and have-nots; the haves were few, the have-nots tragically many. I was determined to win this race. This was about more than some ribbon or trophy, after all; this seemed to be my whole life, my income and identity.

This is a terrible, terrible way to do anything. Or at least it was for me. For one thing, the finish line keeps moving. First it's getting an agent, then a publishing contract, then getting on some bestseller list, then winning some award, and then winning a better award. Worse yet, the punishment for failure seems so extreme. It's like a kind of death, an endless hell of what might have been.

Had I been able to tell my young writer self about all the rejections I would receive, all the books I would write but wouldn't publish, I might have said, "Then I shouldn't do this, because that is failure, and I do not want that life." Incredibly, I would have been wrong. I say incredibly, because to this day the runner in me can't quite believe that a finish line doesn't exist. No matter how disappointed I was with this or that result, my desire to live my own life and make my own choices remained wholly unchanged, and it was from this desire that writing has and always will grow.

This became clearer to me once I began to have what I had once called success. Where once I had feared that someone might tell me I wasn't good enough, that it was possible to be shown some eternal door and barred from happiness, now I was being told I was good enough - and nothing changed at all. I didn't feel any better about myself, and I still had to face a blank page every morning, and I was still the only one who could fill it. It would be forever so until I chose not to face it. And even if I chose to quit facing the page I still wouldn't have failed; I'd merely have taken my curiosity and intelligence and imagination and applied them elsewhere.

I know this may be of little consolation if you are at that point in your writing life where so much seems uncertain, where there is more rejection than acceptance. It easy from that place to spin dark fantasies about your future, a science fiction dystopia where nothing you write is read. Do not be easily hypnotized by the stories with which you terrify yourself at 2:00 a.m. Wait until you're at your desk to tell your story on purpose, because like me, you do not know who will read it or like it, or if it will be published, or if it will win an award, but you do know you want to write it, and believe it or not, that's good enough.

You can learn more about William at williamkenower.com.