Living the writing life means living with failure
washingtonpost.com – Tuesday March 7, 2023
Writing is a hard way to make a living, which is why a whole ecosystem exists to help you feel like you’re succeeding at it. Hashtags like #amwriting provide steady pep talks for people wading through the muck of a first draft. Dubious-seeming ads on Facebook peddle frictionless methods for selling thousands of copies of your book, practically without your even writing it. Perhaps less dubious but certainly more expensive, writing retreats offer chances to workshop your novel with professional guidance beneath the Tuscan sun or some equivalent. You can do it!
Except sometimes — often — most of the time? — you can’t. And when you fail, the ecosystem generally prefers you keep that to yourself. Social media thrives on self-deprecating riffs about rejection, but writers tend to reserve their most despairing fits of self-pity for their diaries. One of my favorite examples of the form is by Bernard Malamud, who, upon learning that his contemporary Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1976, sourly jotted: “Bellow gets Nobel Prize. I win $24.25 in poker.”
To confess failure messes with the narrative that writers have collectively built around success. That narrative fittingly resembles Freytag’s Pyramid, a classic shape for dramatic structure: rising action with some complications along the way, building to a triumphant climax and gently returning back to earth. For a writer, that means long solitary hours toiling away, then collecting rejections, until that magic moment when you can share your Publishers Lunch deal announcement on Twitter. (At which point you might safely joke about those past rejections.)
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