Success and Failure as a Writer ~ Nava Atlas

Though Nava Atlas is best known as the author of many books on vegan vegetarian cooking, she also produces visual books on women’s issues, most recently The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life (2011).
This lavishly illustrated book explores the writing lives of twelve
classic women authors in their own words, with commentary on the
relevance of their experiences to all women who love to write.

Success and Failure as a Writer: An Intertwined Pair, not Polar Opposites
In
a 1928 letter to Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, the British
author, pondered, “Is it better to be extremely ambitious, or rather
modest? Probably the latter is safer; but I hate safety, and would
rather fail gloriously than dingily succeed.” Most of us would rather
not fail at all, gloriously or otherwise. That’s why we’re content to
settle for modest success, instead of taking bold steps needed for
resounding success. To fail at that which we most long for seems like a
terrible fate.
    
Truth
be told, I’ve been hedging my bets in the failure and success
department. I’ve had a good, long run as a food writer and cookbook
author. It has been a fulfilling occupation—one that has paid, gotten me
recognition, and allowed me to juggle the raising a family. But I’ve
scrupulously avoided the more risky path of narrative writing. Now, I’ve
run out of excuses for avoiding my heart’s desires, especially now that
I’ve learned that for the twelve classic authors featured in The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life. failure wasn’t the flip side of success, but its occasional companion.
Charlotte Brontë never had the satisfaction of seeing her first novel, The Professor, in
print, though not for lack of trying (it was published after her death,
once her legacy was assured). She continued to risk failure by working
on another novel while the first one haplessly made its rounds. That
second effort was none other Jane Eyre, a resounding success from the moment it saw print. Virginia Woolf recounted the process of writing of The Years,
each day “lying down after a page: and always with the certainty of
failure.” The specter of  failure was mitigated when, after its 1937
publication, Woolf exulted, “The Years is the bestselling novel in America…”
Risk
can end in either failure or success, but the latter can rarely be
achieved without the courage to fall on one’s face or make a few false
starts. Madeleine L’Engle reminds us that “Risk is essential. It’s
scary….We are encouraged only to do that which we can be successful
in. But things are accomplished only by our risk of failure.” How true
for so many women, who are loathe to face either public or private
disappointment, to be anything other than the A students we were
encouraged to be.
    
L’Engle took a huge risk in writing A Wrinkle in Time, a
book for children that overtly examined good and evil. This was the
late 1950s, and editors felt that kids weren’t ready for this kind of
darker, more complex literature. Some forty publishers rejected it, and
though each turn-down was crushing,  L’Engle held fast to her belief in
the book’s merit. After nearly giving up, Wrinkle
finally found a home and was published in 1962. The subsequent awards
and sales in the millions were sweet vindication, of course. But the
point here isn’t the book’s eventual success, but that L’Engle risked
the time and energy to create the book, knowing it wouldn’t be an easy
sell. She reminds us that “Writers will never do anything beyond the
first thing unless they risk growing.”
      
Avoiding
risk means avoiding failure. But there’s less likelihood of resounding
success. Risk avoidance also prolongs lingering in one’s comfort zone —
which can feel like a cozy cocoon for a while, but can grow
constraining. I’ve often wondered: what if I’d been less invested in
constructing a safe and somewhat predictable creative life? What will I
do with all the notebooks filled with fanciful ideas, and a smaller
window of time to pursue them? For starters, I’m going to heed Madeleine
L’Engle’s advice: Risk is scary and uncomfortable, but there can be no
growth, and little glory, without it.