I recently emerged from a textbook case of the five stages of grief.
I’d been grieving my dream of writing fiction full time by the end of 2011, a goal I had set for myself in the late fall of 2010.
I can honestly say I gave this dream my all. One hundred and fifty percent. But it didn’t work out. And it’s quite possible I held onto this dream a bit too tightly. Like love, dreams need room to move around and grow. Holding on too tightly or smothering it (even with happy thoughts and TLC) is not healthy.
My dream officially died as the clock struck 11:59 p.m. on December 31, 2011.
What I didn’t do:
I didn’t drink or drug or go on eating binges or seek out unhealthy relationships. Instead, I sat with the raw pain and felt every single stab until, one day, I didn’t.
The Five Stages of Grief
Backing up a bit: I was in denial for a bit back in September, blitzed through bouts of anger and bargaining (“Oh, things will get better when this sponsorship happens”), and wallowed in a deep, dark depression for two months — two months that occurred during a hard time of year for me to begin with: Thanksgiving through New Year’s. It was tough and messy and full of tears and snot and angst and manic episodes, but I survived it. And I’ve finally reached the other side: acceptance.
Acceptance, and What I’ve Learned
I haven’t talked too much about my dead dream, because what I don’t want are the well-intended-but-still-misguided platitudes: “You shouldn’t feel that way” or “But you are living the dream!” I’m a compassionate person, by design and environment, and one thing I’ve always known intuitively is that you don’t invalidate people’s feelings by saying stuff like that. (This was reinforced through my training with Samaritans, a suicide prevention organization that I used to volunteer for. The worst thing you can say to someone who is depressed and/or suicidal is that he or she shouldn’t feel that way or that he or she should think of all the things he or she DOES have.) Sometimes things suck for a person, and the best thing you can do in that moment is bear witness to his or her pain.
But back to the dream. The dream – that dream, my dream – is dead. I’m not writing fiction full time. Nowhere near it. This acknowledgement should not lead to the illogical conclusion that I’m “giving up on writing.” That said, the dream is still dead. Time for a new one, or perhaps, it’s time to let dreams go for a while and settle into a place called No Expectations. It’s hard to be disappointed when you have no expectations, and it might be a smart way to live, for me, at least for now.
I realize that I have little control over this writing venture, and I think that’s been the hardest thing to accept. The only thing I can control is what I write, my output. I can follow marketing strategies – blogging, doing updates on FB, buying advertising – but those are just strategies, and the results are out of my control. So, it’s back to basics, back to blocking and tackling, otherwise known as writing and revising. Writing novels and short stories and the occasional poem and, yes, writing marketing copy (sigh!), for now. The writing-fiction-full-time thing will either happen. Or it won’t.
And I also know — and believe — it’s a marathon, not a sprint (this isn’t an original thought; I know Konrath has said it before). I’m in it for the long haul. I’ve said that from the beginning and never wavered from this philosophy, even in those dark days a couple of months ago.
A Word About Failure
I used to be a fan of those people and famous sayings that encourage you to take risks and not to be afraid of failure because it’s a learning experience. I’m still a fan, but I think it’s important to let people know that when you take those risks and when you do fail, it’s gonna hurt like hell. Yes, you’ll learn. And yes, you will (or should) eventually pick yourself up and try again. But that doesn’t change the fact it’s going to hurt when you fall. It’s the ugly little truth people forget to tell you. I was not prepared for how profoundly painful failure would feel. Perhaps there’s no way to prepare for it. But I think it’s important for the brain to be aware of the possibility, if only on an intellectual level.
A Word about Numbers
Sure, it was hard to ignore Hocking’s or Konrath’s incredible sales numbers. But I was (mostly) much more realistic, even in my dream stage. Besides, I wouldn’t need hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to replace my day job. The numbers I’d need are attainable — I still believe this — thanks to the new publishing landscape.
I’m also incredibly fortunate. I always knew I could easily ramp up my copywriting business again if I needed to. Through the summer and early fall, I was operating as if I’d already attained my dream. Call it The Secret, foolishness, an experiment, or a dream that just wasn’t quite ready to blossom yet, but there you have it. In the fall when I realized “it” wasn’t happening and I needed to start making some cash, I swallowed my pride and began making calls/sending emails. I’m good at my day job — some might even say I’m great at it — and I’m fortunate that the work was there and waiting for me. Very lucky.
What I Have Accomplished
This isn’t a poor-me missive, trust me. It started out as a pity party when I began drafting this post after the new year when I was still straddling depression and acceptance. But I’m in full acceptance now and a-okay. And I do realize there are highlights from the last year that I shouldn’t ignore. I’ve sold over 2,000 books — 2,463 to be exact (all titles, including electronic and print). No, not a huge number by any stretch. But it’s something. Reviews have been positive for the most part; all have been fair. I’ve gained some true fans (who aren’t related to me or friends!). Buzz is starting to build with Granite Creek. I’m working on my third book. And that’s pretty much where things stand, to date.
Not a bad place to build from.
Editor’s Note: I worked on this post for several weeks and gave it one final read the morning of 1/21 (and scheduled it to appear on 1/24). After I scheduled it, I happened to go to CNN.com, and lo and behold, this was the cover story: The Success of Failure. (This is the type of thing that makes me believe in the universe, in God, in The Secret. It’s hard to call it a mere coincidence.)
So tell me: how do you handle failure and dying dreams? Share in the comments.