When I started writing, my goal was to have a poem published in Southern Poetry Review. I sent them batch after batch. Each time, the editor returned my poems with the same rejection note: “Sorry, Judy, these just didn’t work out for us.” I’d send poems, he’d send them back: “Sorry, Judy, these just didn’t work out for us.” Finally, I made a collage out of his rejections and mailed it along with my submission. I wrote across the collage: “Perhaps these new poems will work out for you.”
I got a different rejection note.
Fast-forward a few years. I’d had one poetry collection and a chapbook published. I now had a second full-length poetry manuscript I was dying to get published. Over and over, I was a finalist in those contests that offer publication as a prize. I could’ve bought a Honda with the money I spent on submissions. With each letter congratulating me on being a finalist and assuring me that my book would find publication elsewhere, I became more disheartened.
The point of those stories is not whether I ever got a poem accepted by Southern Poetry Review. (I did.) And not whether I ever got my second full-length poetry collection published. (I didn’t.) What’s important is how those failures strengthened my resolve to write.
After Southern Poetry Review’s rejections, I began taking writing workshops, I joined a critique group, I read, studied — swallowed — the work of published poets. Soon I was publishing poems in a variety of literary journals.
Being a frequent finalist for publication changed my life in an even more dramatic way. When I couldn’t find a publisher for that poetry collection, I thought, “Well, I guess I’m not a poet. I’ll just write a novel.” Out of failure grew success. I wrote two novels, both published by Morrow.
As writers, this is how our lives go: We experience failure. Then we experience success. Then failure, another failure, and another. Then maybe a small success. Two more failures. Then maybe success. But there’ll always be another failure.
After each of my failures, I was so crushed I could easily have taken to my bed. Instead, I took to my typewriter.
When I decided to try fiction, I literally put myself back in school and found my own teachers. I learned about writing dialogue by reading Anne Tyler. I learned the importance of concrete descriptive details by reading Eudora Welty’s stories. I read Toni Morrison for inspiration to push the language. I learned about structure by reading classics, such as The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, Catcher in the Rye; I studied how those authors stitched together chapters, how they balanced scene and summary. I went to the bookstore and read the first chapter of maybe forty novels, just to see how good writers snare the reader right off.
Then I made an appointment with myself. I actually wrote on my calendar: “Write today.” As though it were a dentist appointment, which I would never dream of breaking. I kept making regular appointments with myself until I established a writing schedule. In the beginning I didn’t have the time to write every day, but I could write regularly.
Success makes us smug. Success makes us complacent.
Failure is what forces us to question ourselves and our writing. Failure takes our shoulders, turns us slightly, leads us in a new direction. Failure can be the best thing that can happen to us.