Fail, then begin again

I spent the last year wondering why I didn’t seem to like writing anymore and thinking I should just pour all my creative energy into gardening–exclusively. I’m an avid gardener, and a good one, and I love it, and I’m never tempted to quit, even when I fail. So, what happened to writing? That was my first love, and I’m good at that, too.

Gardening fail: sunflowers that failed to ripen before a sub zero frost

I think my faded love started when I began writing my first novel. I’d been an essayist for years, but I wanted to work with fiction, and I wanted the length of a novel to explore a story. Unfortunately, I persuaded myself that I didn’t know anything about novels to the extent that I couldn’t even begin writing one without first reading some how-to books. That was my first mistake.

It doesn’t seem like a mistake to look for advice on structure, story, and pace, but what I ended up doing was replacing my own craft, a craft I’d been developing for years, with the craft of other writers. I didn’t value my own way of unearthing a story, which favors intuition over structure, and I put my trust in everyone else instead of myself.

What I ended up with, after a couple of years working with the how-to manuals, was a novel that landed me an agent. And that sounds like a win, and it was, but the real work came after that. I didn’t just have to revise my novel, I had to rewrite it, and because it didn’t come from my own process, but rather a series of instructions from other experts, I lacked the vision to rewrite it successfully.

Cooking fail: I set the corn on fire

It may sound like I’m assigning blame for my failure on the how-to books. I’m not. The failure was in my own lack of confidence, a failure to trust my vision and my skill.

When I submitted my second rewrite to my agent, she told me I’d written the magic out of it, and I was crushed. She told me to set my novel aside and write a new novel. I cried for two days, then realized she was right. Luckily enough, I’d started one just that morning.

This time, I decided not to use a how-to book. I’d learned what I could from them, and what I learned was useful. But I decided to write as if I knew what I was doing, that I was a master of my craft and my vision, both hard won over years of practice. If this book fails too, I’ll feel okay about it because I have a vision and I’m enjoying the process.

People are often embarrassed about their failures, but talking about them can lead to insight. Do one of two things in the next week: set aside a piece of writing that isn’t working and give it a rest. Try writing something else. Ignore your theater of internal editors, and just do what you want to do.

Or, dredge up a piece of writing that failed to find a home, reread it, and think about the process of writing it rather than the outcome. You’ll learn more about the failures that way and stay truer to your vision next time around.


  1. Your words are just what I needed, Naomi. I’m exploring my voice in my “How to be Japanese” memoir, and am also constantly wondering where / what my writer’s voice is. I will ponder your words “I have a vision and I’m enjoying the practice” and ask myself when that feels true, and if it doesn’t, allow myself to search for the reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really, really, really needed this today. I’ve been going through the same frustration with myself. Thanks for your inspiring words.


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