Maybe Failure is Just Another Word for Compost?

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.

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Debbie Weil - January 9, 2019

Jen,

I cannot thank you enough for this honest article. It is so helpful and so reassuring. I spent last year wrestling with a book proposal for a book that I finally realized was not the one I wanted to write. It felt like bitter defeat to give up on it. (Yes, even though I’m a published author and an editor myself, I worked with several different editors.) Now I’m working on launching a podcast on the topic: “A Gap Year For Grown-Ups” and having fun with that. As to whether there will be a different version of the book in the future, I’m hoping yes. But for now taking a wait and see approach. Anyway, your words and your honesty ring so true. I still hope to get to one of your writing retreats! – Debbie

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Colleen Haggerty - January 9, 2019

Jen, Wow. Thank you for this. Just what I needed to read. I can’t wait to read this book!

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Angela Smith - January 9, 2019

Oh my goodness, yes! I love this post and love your honesty. I have felt the same way getting stuff out there but not getting noticed. And all the things they say you have to do to be noticed, etc. etc. . I love that you are writing something true to yourself and deciding to go indie. I will be waiting for it! Thank you for the post. You have been an inspiration to me for years!

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Jennifer Louden - January 11, 2019

With you Debbie!

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Jennifer Louden - January 11, 2019

thank you so much Colleen!

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Elise - January 12, 2019

I just read this amazing article. Thank you Jen, for the searing honesty! I have asked that question so many times in my life! And it’s not something we’re allowed to talk about. So we can never get into the grit of it as you are doing. Instead the answer always seems to be, suck it up. Give it up. Move on. Who cares? So asking that question starts to feel like a sin. And so it gets buried over and over again.

I am so grateful for your bravery and work that brought you to explore this question. Your work continues to reignite my passion for creating my writing dreams.

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Ellen Fein - January 13, 2019

Jen
Once again your brave honesty and sharing crack me open. And the “why bother” resonates deeply- for probably the first time in my life. Thx

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