Friday, May 20, 2011

Facing Failure: A How-To in Three Parts

Part One: Wanting
Pursuing a dream starts with two simple words. I want.

In order to go for something, it stands to reason you should be able to say what it is you’re going for. It doesn’t seem like this would be particularly difficult. But somehow it is. I had a friend who was always complaining about her weight. She was miserable but she couldn’t seem to do anything about it. One day I asked her, “Well, how much weight would you like to lose?” She began to make excuses about how hard dieting was for her, how she’d tried losing weight before and it never worked, how it was pointless to bother. I asked her again. How much? Twenty pounds? “Oh no,” she said, “I could never lose twenty pounds.” Well, how about ten? “I don’t know,” she said. Then I could tell she was getting annoyed with me, so I shut up.

But it got me thinking. My friend was afraid. If she said she wanted to lose a certain number of pounds, someone might hold her to it and what would happen if she couldn’t do it? Everyone would know—she would know—that she had failed.

I am not knocking this person. I’ve been there myself. There’s a huge risk involved in verbalizing your dream. Saying it, of course, does not simply make it happen. But if you don’t (or can’t) say what you want, well, you’ve pretty much guaranteed that you ain’t never gonna get it.

I have always wanted to be a writer. This was easy for me to say when I was a kid. In fact, I had no problem whatsoever telling anyone who asked me. My mother. My friends. Teachers. By the time I was in fifth grade I was known as the girl who wrote stories. When I was twenty-two, I was still saying it: I want to be a writer.

Then for some reason, I stopped saying it. And not long after, I stopped doing it. Suddenly, writing didn’t seem practical. I had no writer role models except for my professors. I needed to make money. I was growing up, and like a lot of people, I put away my dreams from childhood. I got married. I taught high school English. I had kids. I don’t regret any of this. But at a certain point I started to say the two words again, but only in my head: I want. And the sentence ended with to be a writer.

So I started writing again, slowly, here and there, whenever I might have a stretch of free time (in other words, not often). I went to a writers' conference. I took a correspondence course. I didn’t tell anyone (expect my husband) what I was doing. Writing was just a little hobby.

My big turning point came when I sold a story to a magazine. Then I sold another and with the money I was able to go to a writers' retreat. (Shout out to the people at Highlights, who put on the best retreats and conferences for children’s writers) That retreat was the first time in years that I told complete strangers that I wanted to be a writer. I think I was shaking when I said it. But when I came home, I kept saying it. I am a writer. It was liberating and scary. Liberating because it meant that I was acknowledging again what had once been my dream. And scary because I was opening myself up for questions like, well, what have you written? Which really means, are you published and can I buy your book at a bookstore.

The answer to that is no. But if you ask me what I do now, I will still tell you. I’m a writer. I don’t even shake anymore when the words come out of my mouth.

Tune in for the next installment of Facing Failure. Part Two: Working


  1. Okay, now, hurry UP. I'm waiting for part two!

  2. Ah, I get this all too well. Right there with ya sister! This is precisely why I love being amongst a realm of writers...because we all deal with a lot of the same things. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I gave it up, but I admire you all who pursue the dream.

  4. Donna--I'm working on it. Ariel--thank you. I looked at your blog and am so impressed. My hat's off to you for writing and teaching. I used to teach and I was totally drained at the end of the day. No energy or creativity left to write. And Dorothy--maybe it's not too late...