What To Do When You Feel Like A Big Fat Failure in Writing…and Life…

on September 29, 2016 13 Replies


Failure and I are intimately acquainted.

I’m a Virgo. To people who don’t know the horoscope, it’s a difficult sign. We’re not like the fiery hot Scorpio, or the flowy Aquarius, or the Aries leader. Nope. I’m a follower. A perfectionist. A people pleaser.

And I despise failure of all types in my life.

I remember being terrified of failing in my youth. If a teacher called on me, I’d be paralyzed in my chair, shaking in fear at the idea I could answer wrong. To me, being wrong equaled death. It equaled embarrassment and humiliation. To be wrong was to FAIL.

It got worse as I aged. As a teen, I remember I had a terrible crush on a guy in my math class. I had arranged for my friend to talk to his friend to find out if maybe he kind of liked me and wanted to ask me to the school dance. It took me forever to get to that point, and I remember waiting for my friend to call and give me the final verdict. I squirmed with discomfort but felt proud of myself for trying. When she called and let me know gently that the guy didn’t like me, I was devastated. I think I went to bed for days. All I could think of is how ugly and stupid and dumb I was because he didn’t like me.

All I could think of is how I was a big fat failure.

There was no other task master harder than me. I held myself accountable for success in school, work, friendship, love, etc. It was a difficult road to follow, and eventually, I ended up having a type of a nervous breakdown until I turned to yoga and meditation and found myself chanting on top of a mountain seeking peace for my soul.

But that’s another story.

Back to failure. The only thing that never made sense was how I dealt with failing in my writing career. When I received my first writing rejection, I was stung but refused to quit. Maybe it was the challenge. Maybe it was because writing was the only true passion and joy in my life and I needed it to live. For whatever reason, I was hard on myself with the rejections but I just worked harder to succeed. Along the way, the rejections almost crippled me, but I was like a damn dog with a bone and refused to settle until my books were published.

It took me over twenty years to actually succeed where I could quit my day job and write full time to support myself. And I’m not going to lie. It felt damn good. Success was a heady pill, and I swallowed it whole and gorged unapologetically.

Eventually, as humans do, it wasn’t enough. I needed to reach the next goal and touch the next brass ring. The market changed and got saturated. Sales fumbled. Royalty checks decreased. We needed to work harder to issue more books, and work smarter for discoverability. With all the choices in the world and unlimited potential, many stumbled because when the blank page and endless possibilities is in front of us, it’s scary as hell.

My failures kept on coming. When I found myself weeping hysterically one night in bed because I hadn’t hit the NYT list and felt like a mockery of the author everyone believed I was, I realized I couldn’t do this to myself any longer.

Somehow, I needed to become friends with failure. I needed to embrace it, take it deep, and transform it into an element I could live with on a daily basis. I was so tired of fighting those dark feelings. No one else was putting such expectations and punishment on myself except…myself.

We all have hot buttons we need to work on in life. One of mine is the voice that murmurs consistently that I have FAILED. So, I began to take apart what failure means in life and to me. Sometimes to make peace, you need to dismantle it to see how it works. Here’s my list:

Failure says you tried something. Usually, it’s something that is terrifying. Which means…

Failure says you’re brave. Not fearless. Brave. Big difference.

Failure says you’ve grown. You grow more with failure than success. Success is easy. Failure is hard. You need to reach deep and figure out what went wrong and what you’re going to do about it. You need to make peace with it, get stronger, and move forward.

Failure says you’re human. You’re not supposed to get it right all the time. Failing leads to hidden opportunities you cannot see at the moment, but makes sense in the future. Not getting one job means a better one may be meant for you down the road. I’ve told my boys the most important thing they can do in this life for themselves is try as hard as they can. Whatever fallout happens, they’ll be able to live with.

Failure says you’re interesting. I like to write about characters who have failed in many aspects of their life because they jump off the page. Who’d want to read about a hero or heroine who had an easy life, made all the right decisions, and is pretty much satisfied with their lot in life every day?

Umm, not me. I’ll pass.

Failure says you’re learning. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Figuring out if it’s something you can live with or not.

Failure lurks around every hidden corner. Bad reviews, not making a list, rejections, not making enough money, not getting the job, being wrong in school, getting your heart broken, being told no, not getting picked for a team or promotion, the list is endless.

When I feel helpless under the crippling defeat of failure, I remember all these things. I remember how important failure is in life. It’s part of the yin/yang of the universe – pain/pleasure, light/dark, and joy/sadness. You simply cannot have one without the other.

After a failure there is finally space to breathe. To re-set. To take account of what your life is, where you are, where you want to be. To accept who you are.

And to treasure the successes with more fragility and gratitude.

I look at my beloved sons and see a future before them I hope is filled with all types of failures, because within each distinct failure is the seed of all things raw and hard and painfully, exotically beautiful.

Do you have a hard time with failure? How do you deal with it? Come share with me.

13 thoughts on “What To Do When You Feel Like A Big Fat Failure in Writing…and Life…”

  1. You are singing my song! I’m not a Virgo, but a sensitive Cancer. I have the same overwhelming fear sometimes–of not ever “making it”, of making it, then not making it again. Humans are silly. 😉

    I also do yoga and meditation–I think us writers live in our minds so much that it’s easy to forget there is a body and a moment that is here in the now and not on the page where that cursor is pounding down the time like a stopwatch.

    I’ve recently done a 21-day wellness program. I’m only eating fruits, veg, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and nut butters. I soon learned my coping mechanism for failure or fear of not being enough was a glass of wine (replaced with Kombucha–delicious and it does the trick in a wine glass), and lots of salty chips. (Trail mix made with raw brazil nuts, walnuts, cashews, and goji berries replaced those.) I can’t say I won’t go back to those vices, but having a healthy perspective of WHY I need them has been really eye-opening.

    I’m definitely watching and listening, learning and trying to do better in this, my 4th decade on this planet. I’m so blessed to have you and other fellow authors alongside me who are going through the same things and are willing to talk about it. Beautiful post, Jennifer!

    xo! J. 🙂

    1. Jennifer says:

      I feel the same way Jessica – knowing other writers like you are treading the same path beside me takes away a lot of my failure fear! Thanks so much for stopping in and sharing.

  2. theresa says:

    I am going to be the total opposite here I am an Aquarius but I fear failure in some ways sometimes it stops me from trying anything. When I was let go from my job do to cuts and couldn’t get another job after interview after interview it made me feel like a failure because here I am out of work for 3 years and no job uggh. What help? Well believe it or not I know its going to sound strange but I found a band that I liked started going to there shows met friends through the band and we are still friends now, it helped me not sit at home each day and worry how I didn’t have a job how was I going to pay my bills. Also a very good friend made a special time once a week from my old job to have lunch with me and cheer me up you might know her lol!! If it wasn’t for those special times I don’t think I would have been so calm. It took me 3 years to find the job I have now its only part time but I have to say my fear of interviewing and being rejected are still here. But I know failure is a part of life and it is a part of fear to! Just so you know to me you are never a failure, I look up to you and doing what you love best its ruff out there I know (even though I am not a writer) you got this girl I know it!!!

  3. Lisa Kessler says:

    What a great post! *HUGS*

    And your thought about the difference between being brave and being fearless is HUGE! I am the biggest chicken, but I try to consciously push myself to stretch my boundaries. If you never push, then you can never grow, right? Without risk, there’s no reward…

    But failing sucks. Big time. 😛

    My daughter has been a figure skater since she was 4 years old and I’ve watched her fall literally thousands of times. Some days her butt was wet and other days she didn’t fall once, and we learned something…. Some days you have to fall so that you can appreciate the days when you don’t. If she never fell, she’d have no idea how awesome she was when stayed up…

    So I try really hard when things are sucking to remember that without this struggle, I’ll never be able to appreciate the success or understand the awesomeness of it all…

    And in tough times, that hope that it’s going to get better, reminds me that failure isn’t permanent, it’s a stepping stone to greatness….

    I hope! LOL

    Lisa 🙂

    1. Jennifer says:

      Lisa, your daughter is just as amazing as your son! It’s a great lesson we are constantly learning and I agree – a stepping stone to greatness! Adore you!

  4. This is an excellent and insightful post. I’m a little different than Jennifer in that I don’t necessarily fear failure, but I am always certain that I will fail.

    I’m sitting here, waiting for my debut novel to release, and all I can think about is, despite all the work I’ve done to promote it, how it’s not going to sell. It was like this at every stage of the book for me: When I was writing it I was sure I’d never finish. When I finished it I was sure my beta readers would hate it. When I sent it to publishers I was sure they would all reject it. When one accepted it, I was sure the editor was going to shred it to pieces. And now I’m sure I’ll sell no more than 8 copies (and all of those to my friends).

    People tell me to think positive. Maybe someday I will be able to.

    1. Jennifer says:

      It’s hard Jamie, but I think we get better with time and practice – you will do great with your new release congrats!

  5. Jen, This is from your mother in writing. You are one of the best writers I know. Of course I’m one of those weepy Cancers and I definitely know about being a failure in many areas but when I think about the other writers I’ve given a boost, I feel like a success. Love you.

    1. Jennifer says:

      Aww Janet, you are the best mentor in the world! I simply wouldn’t have had the discipline and courage to keep going – thank you so much for your sweet words I do love my Cancers!!!

  6. This post is everything. You could be talking about me–though I’m a Gemini, LOL–including the yoga and meditation. I sometimes think I’d be in the fetal position in a psych ward without my yoga. Thank you so much for this post!

    1. Jennifer says:

      NO, thank you for feeling me and getting it – so nice to know you are not alone – cyber hugs babe!

  7. You’re one of the kindest, most joyful and supportive writers I know and you will always be a huge success in my eyes.

    1. Jennifer says:

      Well damn girl, you made me tear up! Thank you for those lovely words they mean so much to me!

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