The Promise of Failure: One Writer's Perspective on Not Succeeding

The Promise of Failure: One Writer's Perspective on Not Succeeding

by John McNally


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The Promise of Failure is part memoir of the writing life, part advice book, and part craft book; sometimes funny, sometimes wrenching, but always honest. McNally uses his own life as a blueprint for the writer’s daily struggles as well as the existential ones, tackling subjects such as when to quit and when to keep going, how to deal with depression, what risking something of yourself means, and ways to reenergize your writing through reinvention. 

What McNally illuminates is how rejection, in its best light, is another element of craft, a necessary stage to move the writer from one project to the next, and that it’s best to see rejection and failure on a life-long continuum so that you can see the interconnectedness between failure and success, rather than focusing on failure as a measure of self-worth. As brutally candid as McNally can sometimes be, The Promise of Failure is ultimately an inspiring book—never in a Pollyannaish self-help way. McNally approaches the reader as a sympathetic companion with cautionary tales to tell. Written by an author who has as many unpublished books under his belt as published ones, The Promise of Failure is as much for the newcomer as it is for the established writer. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609385750
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 06/15/2018
Edition description: 1
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 1,222,850
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

John McNally is the author or editor of seventeen books, including The Boy Who Really, Really Wanted to Have Sex: The Memoir of a Fat Kid and Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction (Iowa). McNally divides his time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Lafayette, Louisiana. He teaches at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. 

Read an Excerpt



For years I saved my rejections. Many were standard rejections with boilerplate language. Some came with handwritten notes at the bottom of the rejection slip. Daniel Menaker at the New Yorker used a typewriter to compose his rejection note. Gordon Lish's handwriting looked like hieroglyphics. At least one rejection was a Post-it note that said, simply, "Sorry." Another was a long, cruel rejection by an editor who himself hadn't read the story but whose assistant hated it. The Atlantic used the best paper stock. Rust Hills at Esquire liked one of my stories but thought the last sentence ruined it. I offered to cut the last sentence but never received a reply from him.

By the time I began collecting rejection letters for my short stories, I'd already had a long, storied history with rejection. As far back as fifth grade, I should have known I was in for a lifetime of rejection and failure when I sent my friend Frank Scarcellato over to Mary Micek to tell her that I had a crush on her. He came back seconds later limping, tears in his eyes, from being kicked in the leg, hard. I was disappointed in Mary's reaction, but as someone who appreciated a good laugh and who may have been more of a sadist than some of my other classmates, I wanted to watch Frank limp back a little more injured each time, so I sent him again and again, and the result was the same: Mary would kick him as hard as she could, and my loyal friend Frank would howl like a wounded animal and then limp back to deliver the news. At this young age, I had figured out how to turn a negative into a positive, albeit at the expense of my friend's leg.

In the seventh grade, I began writing a nonfiction book about old-time film comedians and finished it before I entered high school. During those two years, I sent letters to anyone who had ever been in movies with, or who had personally known, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, or the Marx Brothers. I was stunned when people actually began to respond.

Margaret Hamilton, whose most famous role was the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz but who also appeared in an Abbott and Costello movie, sent me a polite, handwritten note along with an autographed photo of herself. Charles Barton, who directed a number of Abbott and Costello movies, including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, sent a letter with his phone number, asking me to call him. (Afraid my voice would reveal I was a child, I never called.) Lou Costello's daughter, who had recently written a book about her father, sent a letter wishing me luck on my project. Moe Howard's son-in-law wrote back warning me not to use "The Three Stooges" in my book's title. Moe Howard's son-in-law! Never mind the menacing threat of litigation. A relative of Moe's had written to me. How cool was that!

I also wrote to a number of authors to ask technical questions, and, remarkably, they also wrote back, including Leonard Maltin, who had yet to gain fame on Entertainment Tonight but who had written many books on film history. I wrote to movie studios to inquire about permissions fees to reproduce photographs for my book; envelopes stuffed full of contracts began appearing in my parents' mailbox, and although the studios were asking for thousands of dollars (fees I would never be able to afford), I was excited nonetheless to be receiving daily mail from Universal Studios, MGM, and even the defunct Hal Roach Studios, which must have been nothing more than a rented office in L.A. to handle, among other things, letters from twelve-year-olds asking for permission to use movie stills in books they'd written.

During breaks from pounding out manuscript pages on the cast-iron Royal typewriter I had bought at a flea market in the sixth grade, I wrote to all the major publishers in New York and asked for their guidelines. I sent letters to publishers in Illinois, too, figuring that I had an in with them since I had lived almost my entire life just outside of Chicago. In no time at all, envelopes bearing the names of famous publishing houses showed up in our mailbox. It was as if editors had been doing nothing but waiting for a letter from me! Using their royalty rates as my guide, I calculated how many books I would need to sell before I could buy a house for my parents. I tried not to let anyone know what I was doing, but a few days before graduating from eighth grade, I couldn't help telling girls I'd had crushes on. In my autograph book they wrote, "I can't wait to read your book!" and "Don't forget me when you're famous!"

Oh, no, I thought, I won't forget you. Ever!

I finished the book during the summer of 1979 and promptly wrote query letters to publishers, asking if they would like to see my book. I imagined bidding wars; I imagined my photo on the cover of People with the headline "Young Author Secures Enormous Advance"; I imagined Mary Micek calling me up to apologize for dismissing me as a snide, fat kid instead of seeing me for what I really was — a sensitive, misunderstood intellectual with a love for words. (In truth, I was a snide, fat kid, but I was willing to play the sensitive misunderstood intellectual role, if necessary.) What I hadn't imagined were letters from publishers telling me that they did not accept unsolicited manuscripts, and yet this was what I received, day after day: form letters (not even personal responses) informing me of their companies' policies. Having no idea what "unsolicited" even meant, I looked it up in the glossary of one of my books on publishing: "A story, article, poem or book that an editor did not specifically ask to see."

Unsolicited? If publishers didn't want to see my book, why were they so damned eager to send me their guidelines?

Before full-blown despair crushed me, a letter arrived from an editor at Harmony Books asking to see the manuscript. This is it, I thought. Solicited! All you needed was one person who wanted your book to negate all those rejections. Who cared what the other publishers thought? Harmony Books understood what I was trying to do; they saw something in my query letter that had piqued their interest; they knew, in short, that they had a goldmine on their hands. And so I waited — one week, two weeks, three weeks. It wasn't until week six that a letter from Harmony finally arrived. The first sentence began, "While your book is a fine first effort...."

I stopped reading, not because of the rejection I knew was bound to follow. No, I stopped because of the editor's presumption. "First effort?" I yelled, enraged. "First effort?" I found a draft of my original cover letter. Nowhere — nowhere! — did it say that this was my first effort. Let us forget for a moment that I had typed the entire manuscript on erasable bond paper that smeared with the slightest touch or that my signature at the bottom of the cover letter looked like a child's. Let's ignore that when I wanted to emphasize a phrase, I had flipped the lever that shifted the ribbon so that I could type the words in red ink instead of black. The fact remained that I had not told Harmony Books that the book I had sent them was my first. So, where did they get off suggesting that it was?

That, at least, was what my thirteen-year-old self was thinking. The fifty-one-year-old me is now amazed that someone actually asked to see the book in the first place and then took the time to write back. The rejection letter went on to say that they already had a film writer on their list — my old pen pal Leonard Maltin — and that it wouldn't be fair to him to add yet another. It was a courteous letter, encouraging even, but they had dashed my hopes. I allowed myself to sulk for a day. But just for one day and no more. The next morning, I brainstormed new angles to pursue, new books to write, and I was determined to show all of them — everyone who had rejected me — that they were wrong to have done so. I was money in the bank! I was the next number one best seller!

By the time I turned fourteen, I had been rejected by every major publisher in New York. I honestly can't think of a more valuable education for a writer — for this writer, at least — than what I put myself through. In this profession, failure isn't just a fact of life; it's a necessary part of the process. What I learned firsthand at fourteen was how hard it is to get your foot in the door; I learned how unattainable it can seem to get a book published. Instead of getting discouraged, I started to view myself in a new light — as that of a seasoned writer, already on his way up.

What is failure? What is success?

In this book, you won't find simple definitions. My hope is to complicate the meanings of the terms failure and success. The lines between the two sometimes blur. The history of literature, for instance, is full of projects that didn't succeed for one reason or another but ultimately led to a more successful version of the book at a later date. James Joyce's posthumously published Stephen Hero is a failed run-up to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. John Steinbeck wrote a failed version of The Grapes of Wrath before eventually pounding out the now-classic version in less than a year. Richard Russo wrote an unpublished novel from which he pulled characters to use in his first published novel, Mohawk. The vastly underrated writer Jon Hassler writes in the introduction to My Staggerford Journal about how, while thinking of ideas for a novel, he returned to the failed 174 pages of a novel he had written a year earlier:

I was about to give up on it and put it back in the file drawer when I came, near the end, to a description of a typical day in the teacher's life: "First hour, Miles yawned." Nothing up to this point came alive the way these final six or eight pages did, and I figured out the reason. Nothing on the first pages corresponded in any way to the real world; everything had been wholly imagined.

And so begins Staggerford, Jon Hassler's first published novel: "First hour, Miles yawned."

More recently, Benjamin Percy has written about his failed novel attempts in his book Thrill Me:

I wrote four failed novels before selling The Wilding. They were not a waste of time, not at all. I learned from them the humility that comes from watching something you've spent years working on turn to dust in your hands. And I discovered — by dissecting their cold carcasses — the many ways I might rob their organs and bones, their images and characters and settings and metaphors, and rearrange them, reimagine them, as short stories.

As writers, we have to give failure the respect it deserves and not yield to its reputation on the streets. Having said that, I'm no Pollyanna. Failure, like Satan, comes in many disguises and forms. When we spend three or four or five years writing a novel and then our agent can't sell it, it's difficult to recover, to regroup. Or maybe we can't even get an agent to represent the novel. Or maybe we can't finish the novel. Or maybe we live with someone who doesn't take our writing seriously.

The idea for this book grew out of a status update I wrote on Facebook several years ago. One afternoon, while hungover and scrolling mindlessly through dozens of status updates full of writers' successes, I decided to make a list of all my major failures as a writer. I listed the successes, too, but only for statistical context. I didn't have a larger point for doing this except that I had wanted my post to serve as a counterpoint to those whose updates only ever showed a promising and upward trajectory to their careers and lives. I had expected a few people to click the thumbs up icon. Maybe a few more would leave frowny-faced emoticons or even, ambiguously, smiley-faced emoticons. But what happened next astonished me. Dozens upon dozens of writers, both aspiring and established, thanked me for being honest. Some left their thanks on my wall while others sent long, personal messages to me. Some shared my status update on their walls, adding that they appreciated (for once) a truthful look at what it took to be a writer. And yet all I had done — the only thing I had done, in fact — was post a list of my failures with very little commentary and no analysis.

I have always known that failure is a touchy topic among writers, but this was my first indication that it was also taboo. Clearly, I had uncorked something that my fellow writers wanted to talk about, and my post had opened the door for them.

My first book would be published in 2000, twenty-one years after my school-age effort about old-time comedians was roundly rejected.

Here's the overview of my book-writing career as fiction writer that I had posted on Facebook. This does not include individual short stories, essays, book reviews, nonfiction books, anthologies, TV pilots, or screenplays.

1 Novel. Rejected; never published. Year completed: 1991. 2 years to write.

2 Novel. Rejected; never published. Year completed: 1996. 5 years to write.

3 Story collection. Accepted. Year completed: 1999. 10 years to write.

4 Novel. Rejected; never published. Circulated by agent as a partial manuscript: 2002. 1.5 years to write.

5 Novel-in-Stories. Accepted. Year completed: 2003. 2 years (or more) to write.

6 Novel. Accepted. Year completed: 2005. 2 years to write.

7 Novel. Rejected; never published. Year completed: 2006? 2007? Less than a year to write.

8 Story collection. Accepted. Year completed: 2007. 10 years to write.

9 Novel. Accepted. Year completed: 2009. (Took a break writing Book #10 to write Book #9.) 9 months to write.

10 Novel. Rejected. Year completed: 2013. 2 years to research, then 5 years to write. At the moment, I'm considering a radical rewrite of this novel, but in its present form, it has been rejected by every major commercial publishing house.

Three facts for context: first, I earned my MFA in 1989; second, "rejection" means that the book was sent around to many, many publishers/editors by an agent; third, all of the acceptances came with rejections, in some cases many, many rejections.

Even before I had written that first novel that would remain unpublished, I was writing short stories and poems, dozens of them, and from 1984 until 1988 I collected rejections, hundreds of rejections; and there came a point when I thought, This isn't going to happen. But then it did.

The very first professional recognition I received as a writer came in the form of placing third in the Playboy College Fiction contest. I was ecstatic. I was twenty-two years old in 1988 and wrapping up the first year of my MFA program, for which I had not received any funding. And I had just learned that I would not receive funding the following year either. I was one of three people in my class out of over fifty who would not receive funding. But now my name would appear in a major magazine! My luck was changing. In the meantime, Playboy sent a check and a framed certificate to me. My mail carrier, who spent his lunch breaks reading other people's magazines in his truck while he smoked, brought the package up to my door.

"You've been getting a lot of mail from Playboy," he said.

I nodded. Was I in trouble? Was there a limit to the mail that I could receive from Playboy?

"You're a writer, right? I mean, I noticed you get a lot of letters from magazines."

This was Iowa City. There were days it seemed that everyone in town was a writer. I had heard stories of cab drivers with book manuscripts tucked under their seats in the event they picked up an editor.

"I read Playboy," the mail carrier said. "Maybe I've read your stuff."

"No, you haven't," I said. And then I had to explain to him that I had placed third in their contest and that only the first-place winner's story would be printed in the magazine. It pained me to have to qualify the achievement, but the postal carrier got it. He grasped its significance.

"Still, though," he said, "third's pretty great."

My mother was also happy for me. Although she never explicitly expressed disappointment, I knew that she had hoped I would become an attorney, which was an idea I had briefly entertained. My mother had grown up a sharecropper, and her education had ended with the eighth grade. She was pragmatic, and so her son being an attorney made better sense in her worldview than her son being a writer. Still, she understood that this was a big deal.

But my father's response was, "Too bad you didn't win first place."

In any given situation, my father rarely ever saw the light. He saw the failure in it. He saw lost opportunities.

"You're right," I said, balling up my fists. "Too bad." I left the room.

I could hear my mother say, "Bob, why did you say that?" and then my father say, "What? All I said was that it was too bad he didn't win first."

Rejection is multifaceted, and it sometimes hits you when you're expecting a lift — when you deserve a lift.


Excerpted from "The Promise of Failure"
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Copyright © 2018 University of Iowa Press.
Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Rejection, Failure, and the Bigger Picture A Personal History 1

Prepared Spirits Author Stakes and Risking Failure 32

The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Redux Depression and Failure 56

To the Stars on the Wings of a Pig Reinvention, Genre-Hopping, and Collaboration 79

194 Days When to Quit … When to Keep Going 99

Conclusion 120

Bibliography 123

Index 125

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