Maybe Failure is Just Another Word for Compost?
You may or may not know this, but last April I realized I’d spent four years writing a memoir that wasn’t going to work. Ever.
As hard as I had worked to shape the material and find the central insight I wanted to share with you, it just wasn’t there. What was there was a 500-page lump of anecdotes and way too much whining.
You also may or may not know that for the last eleven years I’ve written books that haven’t seen the light of day. One and a half novels, countless self-help book starts, and then the memoir. I truly wondered if, after eight books and almost a million copies in nine languages sold, I would ever finish another.
There are a bunch of reasons those books didn’t work, but it was mostly because of my own fixed mindset and not having the right mentorship and coaching.
As I’ve written before, I recovered from my memoir tanking (so proud of myself!) and quickly started a new book. I knew there was something in the compost of those 500 pages that was important to find and write about.
What came next was a thematic memoir entitled Lessons the Self-Help Guru Had to Teach Herself. A self-help trope I had would frame each chapter with, a trope I had either rejected or poo-pooed (or swallowed whole) like “Everything Happens for a Reason” or “Time Heals All Wounds”. I would use the stories from the compost memoir to frame a chapter by chapter narrative arc about what I learned, didn’t learn or was still learning about being a human.
Zoom! Off I went. I wrote two great chapters, and a scaled down book proposal to pitch the idea to my agent. My friends and my book coach loved what I wrote. It was working! I was writing!
I sent the proposal off during a Facebook Live event, weeping with the excitement of finally writing something that felt right.
And my agent rejected it.
Kindly, with lots of compliments about my writing, saying she no longer knew how to sell anything except fiction. “I get it,” I replied, and she offered to show it to two other agents in the agency. I was so sure they would be so excited to represent me I knew it was a slam dunk.
And yes, you saw this coming: those agents, too, turned it down.
I went for a run and told myself, “Nobody but me decides what my writing career looks like” and “Like I will let three agents decide my future. As if!” I kept writing, confident and determined.
But then this book felt forced and stilted. When an editor friend of mine offered to read what I had written, she confirmed my growing intuition: something was off.
And once again, I left behind months of work and started again.
I hadn’t yet found the truest thing I needed to write about right now.
I need to pause here and make two very important distinctions: in the past when my various book and ideas failed, they failed because I wasn’t willing to adopt a growth mindset. I wanted things to work and work easily.
They also failed because I believed a story of what those books would do for me. I wanted to be a successful writer more than I wanted to tell the stories and share the insight waiting to be shared.
Fast forward to the third book I am writing now. (My stomach just clenched as this is the first time I have shared this idea publicly… Breathing, breathing.)
What emerged from all that compost and all that listening and trusting was this:
After a few hellish years that included her husband’s cancer, her father’s death, the breakup of her eighteen-year marriage, and a spate of professional disappointments, self-help author and teacher, Jen Louden, found herself at an all-time low and plaintively asking herself, “Why bother?”
Why bother to keep trying so damn hard to live her best life? Why bother to stop playing small and follow her dreams and believe everything happens for a reason and she could do, be, and have anything?
“Why bother?” became a lead weight around her heart until a scary coincidence on a cold winter morning snapped her awake and got her wondering: what if why bother was actually a fantastic question to ask?
How do we bother – after heartbreak, after career and creative defeats, after giving up our own dreams to raise kids or take care of a sick parent? How do we bother again when we find ourselves lost, not even sure who we are anymore? How do we ever allow ourselves to bother in the first place? And what about when we’ve checked off most of the boxes on our life’s to-do list and now we’re wondering: what’s next?
“Why bother?” is a question we might not dare utter except to our closest friends, our therapist or our journal. It can sound terribly ungrateful, privileged and so not Oprah approved. Everybody else is drinking mushroom-spiked coffee, crafting vision boards, and manifesting; everybody else knows exactly why they bother, so you better do the same. Only it feels increasingly difficult to fake it.
But here’s what Jen found on her quest to answer the question for herself, and to learn how friends and heroines, philosophers and scientists and artists answer: it’s the question every thinking woman asks. And must answer for herself. Again and again.
If you ever dared to wonder what matters most to you and what might matter next, come along as Jen discovers “Why bother?” is not a cynical or ungrateful question, but instead can crack open what’s calling you and who you want to become next.
That’s what I’m writing. I’ve written 16,000 words to date and my gut and my head are pretty darn happy. It feels like I’ve discovered the truest thing I need to write about, the real thing I learned, and it turns out to be the theme of all my life’s work: how do we keep showing up fully for life?
And I’m planning on self-publishing! I know it will be a ton of work (and risk!), but I want to choose me and what I believe in 1000000% instead of waiting for someone else to tell me I’m good enough.
How could all of this help you and your creative work?
* If you find yourself stuck, you could ask: What is the one truest thing I want to create right now?
* Use the old to grow into the new. What wants to arise now from all you have learned and tried vs. trying to make the old ways work?
* Revisit the growth mindset and see where you may have confused success with “getting it right the first time” or your identity?
* Perhaps it’s time for outside eyes, readers, or mentoring on your work? We are opening the doors to the Writer’s Oasis soon, an incredibly affordable loving way to get support for your creations.
* And most of all? Please remember you are not your work. You are the vastness of life itself. Rest in your true nature often, and compost from there.
Thanks for reading such a long post! Next week we will dive into getting back to creating to set you up for my annual five-day challenge starting January 28th.