Successes and Setbacks

“The only copy of your manuscript is stolen from your car. Articles and stories come back with unfailing rejection…Finances grow ever more perilous. This is, with variations, the script for the first ten or fifteen years of many successful writers’ careers. But they hung on.”

This quote comes from one of my favorite book of meditations for writers called Walking on Alligators. It talks about the nearly universal experience of published writers: their successes are interspersed with fairly regular setbacks.

Have you accepted that truth yet?

Re-framing Failure

Even though the overall pattern of your writing experiences will probably be upward (assuming you don’t quit), it will be full of ups and downs. Ups will include sales and good reviews and awards. The downs–those drops on the chart–include rejections and delays and canceled contracts.

The setbacks are NOT failures or reasons to quit–unless you allow them to be. They’re both places of learning and places of rest. They are simply steps on the way to the top. More importantly, they can have a positive effect.

Upside of Down Times

Compare it to climbing a mountain. It’s usually an up-and-down experience as you work your way to the top. There are periods where you climb upward steadily. Sometimes you also go down–lose a bit of altitude–before starting the next steep climb. Are the downhill stretches failures? No. Setbacks? Not really, although it can feel like that.

Downhill spots have their bright side though. For example, when I “fail” to sell something, it forces me to slow down and ask some questions. And more than one time, the failure to sell a series idea gave me an initial disappointment (lasting about five minutes) followed by a rush of relief that I didn’t have to force my exhausted body into another grueling writing stint just yet. The setbacks can be restful, if we let them be. They can allow you to recoup some energy.

The periods in our writing life that seem “down” can also be times to rethink and regroup. Maybe we need a course correction. Perhaps that rejection is trying to point us in a new direction in our writing. Or that negative review might be telling us that our real love (and talent) is in writing poetry, not baby board books.

But It’s Worse Than That!

What about when the negatives are too frequent? As Harriet Beecher Stowe once said: “When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems that you cannot hold on for a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” Judging from personal experience, I have to agree with her.

Have you ever seen a negative happening (bad critique, rejection, few people coming to your workshop, etc.) be transformed into something positive? No need to give specific names or publications, but can you share an unwanted writing experience that turned out, in some way, to be a good thing?

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