What You Can Learn From My 120,000 Words of Failure

Apr 4, 2018

As I shared last month, the memoir I sweated over for four years and 120,000 words is kaput.

I’ve started calling it “the book that shall not be named.”

I promised I would share what I learned from the book failing. I hope these are useful to you.

#1 – NOTHING IS WASTED

So many of you have written me to say, “Please don’t throw the book out. I want to read it.” While these sentiments make, and I’m very clear you would not want to read that manuscript (it really is a mess on so many levels), I also want you to know I am not throwing the book in the trash. I’m using it as a closet to select bits and pieces from as I construct a new book.

A central reason the book doesn’t work is I failed to follow the most important tenet of memoir: I didn’t focus tightly enough on one aspect of my life.

But this also means there’s plenty to pick from and use to support a new carefully chosen focus.

I work with so many writers who have so much material and that material overwhelms them UNTIL they’re able to step away and deliberately choose a focus + a compelling why.  Then they can comb through their abundance and find what fits the new focus and supports their compelling why.

Takeaway – Choose a clear focus + dig in and know your why + then scan your material to pluck out gems.

#2 – PLANNING ISN’T EVIL AND IT DOESN’T STEAL THE MAGIC

I first studied writing seriously in 1980 with the cantankerous Southern writer Harry Crews.  When he wasn’t drunk, he taught that our characters had to come alive and speak to us, carry the story where they willed. If that didn’t happen, well he never really told us what to do but the idea was: that was the only kind of writing worth doing.  

Couple this with writing practice I learned from Natalie Goldberg around 1989 and what I ended up with was a less than useful approach to writing. Sure, I could generate a ton of pretty sounding words and interesting characters but those didn’t add up to a cohesive structure or story.

I’ve paid the price in hundreds of thousands of words and I am here to proclaim: you need ways to plan your projects.  It isn’t cheating, it doesn’t mean you’re a hack, and there are plenty of ways to plan that keep the element of surprise intact as you write. Don’t poo-poo planning or fear it or you could end up where I did: with thousands of words that didn’t add up to a whole.

I’m working hard to learn lots of ways to writing so I can use them on my emerging book and teach some at my upcoming weekend workshop and writing retreats.

Takeaway: Consider the following: What stories do you have about planning your writing you might want to revisit? What approaches to planning would you like to try out?

#3 – STOP BEING PRECIOUS ABOUT YOUR WRITING

I had very accomplished writing friends offer their help over the last four years. “Send me your memoir” and “I’d be happy to talk to you about the book.”  I waved off every single one saying “Thank you, of course, when I have a first draft.” Why oh why did I do that? Because I constructed a story that writing a memoir was a big deal and I had to keep what I wrote sequestered away until some magic time that would someday arrive.

Takeaway: While who you share your work with and when you do it is worth careful consideration, if you find yourself never sharing your work because it’s too precious or you’re too afraid, it’s probably the exact right time to share it.

#4 – TRUST YOUR GUT & DON’T SACRIFICE TRUTH FOR SPEED

I did get feedback from a book coach. She thought the book was great. My gut told me it wasn’t. However, I got so caught up in wanting to produce words, get the work done, and meet the deadlines I set with her, that I didn’t stop to listen to the nigglings.

God love my friends and husband, they thought I was being a doomsday whiner when I would say, “I think the book might not work.”  

There were so many moments when I needed to stop and listen to the thoughts I had about my structure being too complicated, my character not changing, my central metaphor getting away from me… ah hindsight, so clear.

Takeaway: It’s necessary to set goals (words, pages, time spent writing) and you need to stop to ask, “How do I feel about this work? Am I writing just to say I wrote vs. building something strong and true?”

It’s also necessary to have a writing friend or two to discuss these thoughts and nigglings with – find some!

#5 – CONFUSING YOUR PERSONAL NEEDS WITH THE NEEDS OF THE BOOK

For many years, I’ve yearned to write a book that wasn’t self-help and that was deeply engrossing, deeply true, and beautifully written.  That yearning high-jacked my book and blotted out that I also need to consider what purpose the book would serve.

Why would this book matter to readers?

I got so caught up in what I wanted and how it fed my sense of being special, I forgot that a book is written for other people to read and benefit from or be entertained by. Forgetting this allowed me to remain very lost.

Takeaway: While your desires for why you’re writing matter, your readers’ desires also matter. And it’s important to make a distinction between your inner critic that will constantly taunt and doubt you and the hard truths about your writing that you have to face along the way. It’s not easy, but it is possible to both connect deeply with the people you wish to reach and express yourself authentically.

***

I don’t regret writing this book –  it changed me so fundamentally, and for that I am forever grateful. It has also impressed upon me so many valuable insights for my own teaching and coaching as well as the incredible power of personal narrative to shift how we see ourselves.

And you can bet I will be putting my insights about what to do differently to use as I embark on my new idea, which will include sharing parts of the new book in progress here and on social media.  Test test test!

Here’s to claiming our voices and our stories,

Jen

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