When Failure is Overwhelming

I still have the urge to write novels.

It’s buried down somewhere deep in my bones, where it occasionally lashes up and out into ideas. Sometimes those ideas even well-spring into an empty and waiting Scrivener document, where they fill a couple of thousand words, before being consigned to a dark corner of my Google Drive. And they sit there.

Every once in a while, when my mind is wandering, I’ll go spelunking, looking for something to do, something to play with. And I’ll dig up those little fragments, look at them like they’re figurines in my grandmother’s china hutch, and then put them back away, untouched or barely-touched.

It’s not worth it. The voice is clear, every time that I open a project. You know what happened last time. You know that you’re not good enough.

And that’s true. I wrote my first novel in the years between 2010 and 2016, with most of the hard work and focus in the last three years. I spent time with these characters and this story, and I grew it into a novel I was proud of.

Then I put myself to the test. I sent out queries, tried to sell this darling project to agents, the first step in getting it out to the rest of the world. And none of them wanted it. They were perfectly polite, and many of them had good suggestions, but the subtext was overwhelming and obvious:

This isn’t good enough. You aren’t good enough.

That was the voice, the voice that came back to me when I thought about reworking my original novel (“You need to move on! You don’t want to be one of those failed writers who tinkers with the same project for twenty years.”) or when I thought about working on something new. It just wasn’t any good. And it wasn’t ever going to be any good. Your last thing wasn’t any good.

I envy the people who are able to not worry about it, who are able to write as an avocation, while going on with the rest of their lives. But for me? Writing is just about the only thing I have. I’ve been a one-trick pony for most of my years, and that trick was writing.

And to discover that my trick, for all the years I put into it, for how much I’ve come to enjoy it and rely on it for my emotional well-being, just to fail at the real test, the important test — can I make money at it? — is just painful. It’s like building up a hero’s journey, getting all the way to the end, only to have some supernatural force kill the hero and all of his allies, and resurrect the nemesis from the dead.

To discover that I am a failure as a writer is frustrating, disappointing, and anticlimactic as hell. It invalidates a huge part of my personal identity; not only the person I thought I was, but the person I wanted to be. It leaves me with an overwhelming ache, a sense of incompleteness. It’s like trying to scratch an itch, only to discover that your fingernails just aren’t up to the job.

I don’t know what to do now. I just don’t know.