Writing, Failure, and Time

Failure and time and success in writing.

Time for the last two articles of this column. Warning: lots of meanderings ahead about writing and “success,” ones that I hope will, on the whole, be encouraging and helpful.

Even though the first thing I want to talk about is… failure.

Years ago, some of my friends in tech were talking about succeeding at founding a startup. For those who don’t know, that’s a very, very unlikely endeavor, like threading the eye of a needle. One of my friends opined on how the most important quality to have was the ability — not only the ability, but the willingness — to fail. And fail. And fail again. And keep failing, and, more importantly, keep going.

I think the same is true of a writing career.

This may sound like a corny inspirational poster. But this isn’t just “try, try again” in different words. Because… I don’t know that it always is the right decision to try again. A lot of people burn out and go to do something that doesn’t suck them so dry emotionally, over and over again. A lot of people decide it isn’t worth the heartbreak and move on to lives that make them happier. To take a sequence of events that is destroying you and opt out of it is… it’s not a failure of character. It’s a personal decision that only needs to make sense to the person making it.

But I do think — and here I think back to something we used to say in movies, another career that is so unlikely and difficult and so few people succeed at — we used to say that the people who succeed in movies are the people who are left.

The people who have managed to last long enough without deciding it just wasn’t worth it.

It doesn’t sound like so much of a badge of character then. Lasting long enough. Success by virtue of still continuing, however tiredly, to throw your hat in.

It was largely true of movies, for me and many of my friends. It’s largely true of so many competitive, difficult, heartbreaking careers.

And not only careers. The idea for this column was prompted, in part, when through Reddit I stumbled across this post, which maps out the user’s various failures throughout grad school. Reading that diary of events, you can well imagine what that kind of journey can feel like from the inside. That everything is going wrong. That everything is turning worse, and worse. Stress. Pain. Grief.

The writer might have quit and gone on to live a very happy life elsewhere. But he didn’t.

He stayed.

In writing, rough times can be so low that every time I’m in a room with a bunch of writers who have been in the industry more than ten years or so, there’s a… jaded-ness to it. Because everyone in that room has seen a hell of a lot of failure.

Recently, on Twitter, someone with access to a database looked up how many books writers generally last in the industry for. Over 80% of published authors quit within 3 books. And that’s published authors — that’s not counting all of the thousands or even millions of aspiring authors out there. Only about 10% of published authors make it to six books. And only 5% make it to twelve.

Considering how hard it is to finish a book and get published at all, those are very low numbers. A friend talked to me recently about how people simply… disappear out of writing, all the time.

And I get it.

It’s hard. I’ve been doing this too long now to judge anyone who decides to stop. I can’t say I’ve never thought about it myself.

But there’s also a perverse sort of encouragement to all this, to me. Because it means… maybe the most important quality to career success (not saying anything about artistic success, but career success) is the mere fact of keeping on.

Which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds… but it’s also not an impossible lottery win.

This is a little bit of a depressing post, but I promise it’s paired with my last post for this column… which is the other side of the coin, and a little more optimistic.