FIRST YOU FLOP
Grads: Don’t Be Afraid of Failure
Speaking to the graduates of Manchester Community College in Manchester, Connecticut, author Amanda Filipacchi urged them to embrace failing if they wanted to succeed.
Today, I don’t want to talk just about achieving your dreams. I want to talk about preparing yourself for the rejection and failure you must overcome on the way to achieving your dreams.
To do that, I will talk a little bit about the trajectory of my own career and some of the lessons I learned that might be useful to you.
I remember when I was eight years old, I loved reading novels. But at that age it seemed to me that writing novels must be the most difficult profession in the world, because having to write that many pages—enough to fill a whole book—seemed like a feat of superhuman proportions. So even though I loved reading novels, I never thought in a million years that I would end up writing them.
I remember sitting on my bed when I was 13 and crying because I didn’t know what profession I wanted to go into, what career I wanted to have, or what I wanted to do with my life. What I did know was that I wanted to get going on working on my career immediately. But how could I work on it if I didn’t know what it was going to be? When my mother saw me crying on my bed, she asked me what was wrong, and when I told her, she was a bit baffled and tried to comfort me, telling me (as I knew she would) that I didn’t need to worry about that at my age and that I had plenty of time to figure it out much, much later. I actually ended up figuring it out very, very soon afterwards because I was attending the American School of Paris (we were living in France at the time), and my school curriculum included a creative writing class. In that class we had to write one short story a week. I had never written fiction before, but when I started writing stories for that class, the reactions I got to my stories from teachers, students, and family were extremely positive—more positive than for anything I had ever done in my life until then. This gave me a huge high. And I knew I wanted to experience that high over and over again for the rest of my life. So that’s when I realized I wanted to be a writer.
I knew I still had a lot to learn. I immersed myself in everything having to do with trying to become a writer. I read writing magazines such as The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and Poets & Writers. I read books on the craft of novel writing. I read interviews of writers and author biographies. I wrote part of a novel on my own, outside of school.
After high school, I applied to a college in America that offered Creative Writing as a major, which was not common at the time.
In college, since my dream was to become a novelist, I wanted to do more than what was required in my creative writing classes. In those classes, you just had to write a couple of short stories per semester, and do a few writing exercises. I wanted to write a whole novel, outside of class. But I was still very intimidated by the huge number of pages needed, to fill up a whole book. It seemed like it would be a demoralizingly endless endeavor, and I was a bit impatient. So I decided to write a whole novel in one month. That meant 10 pages a day. I filled the pages with anything, off the top of my head—I mean, it was a story, it wasn’t a shopping list, but it wasn’t a very carefully thought out story. I focused on getting those 10 pages written each day as quickly as possible. All I cared about was that they were written, not that they were good. And so the result was a very bad novel. I showed it to only 3 people. The first person said, “If I were you I wouldn’t show it to anyone”. That was my mother, who had always loved my short stories, but not so much this novel. The second person I showed it to tried to be polite about it. That was my best friend. The third person I showed it to was cringing so much while reading it, that she could not even read past the second page. And that person was me. That’s right. In fact, I’ve tried a few times in my life to read that novel but can never get past the second page.
So even if it wasn’t a good novel, I had nevertheless written a novel, and this had given me some confidence in my ability to write “that many pages.” So I decided I should try again, but this time I would give myself more time—I would write a novel in two months. So that’s what I did, and this novel was also bad. And this depressed me greatly but at least I had gotten the message, which was: I had to stop writing a certain number of pages a day and instead focus on quality, because filling “all those pages” was really not the hard part after all.
After college, I enrolled in Columbia University’s MFA program in creative writing. There, I started writing a new novel, paying no attention to how many pages I was writing, and instead focusing only on quality. I was lucky to have a wonderful teacher there (who was also an editor at The New Yorker) and she loved my novel. She asked me if I had an agent. When I said no, she recommended me to a very good agent, who sold my novel to Viking. I was 24 years old, and very quickly, that novel was published in translation in 15 other countries.
So, remember that high, that I had experienced when I was 13 and that I wanted to experience over and over again? Well, I was feeling it—so strongly, in fact, that I had trouble sleeping at night. It was an incredibly exciting time when my foreign publishers would fly me over to do interviews and promotion in various countries.
And now I’d like to talk about rejection and failure.
A few years ago I wanted to get some feedback on a novel I had just finished writing, which would become my third published novel. So I asked an old friend from Columbia graduate school if she would be interested in having us critique each other’s novels. She had written a novel that she had put away in a drawer after hardly sending it out to any agents. She said she had stopped submitting it because she could not bear the rejections. I assumed her novel was perhaps not a very strong one, not ready to be published. When I started reading it, I realized that was not the case. I was impressed with her novel and was sickened by the thought that she would never give it a decent chance to find a publisher. I told her so, but she still refused to submit it. This drove me crazy, so I asked her if I could submit it to an agent friend of mine, on her behalf, as long as the agent promised to send his response to me, not to her—this way she would never need to hear about his possible rejection. She relented and allowed me to send it to the agent. After he read it, he contacted me to say he wanted to represent it. And not only did he represent it, he also sold it to a big publishing house, Crown. My author friend was thrilled. I’ve since had lots of other very talented friends who are aspiring writers and who’ve written one or more novels, but they refuse to send them out for fear of rejection. I plead with them, but they don’t budge.
I can understand their impulse to protect themselves from rejection. Like most writers and people in any profession, I’ve experienced my fair share of rejections and I know they’re excruciatingly painful. But one has to be willing to endure that pain. There are so many examples of well-known writers who endured dozens of rejections before their novels got accepted. And in some cases those novels weren’t just published but became hugely successful. Even J.K. Rowling, the bestselling author of the past twenty years, was rejected twelve times before her first Harry Potter novel was accepted. Most successful people, in any profession, do encounter setbacks, disappointments, rejections, and failures throughout their careers, not even just in the beginning. Successful people work through failure, they try again, and are able to maintain enough optimism and motivation to keep building, keep improving, keep progressing, even though they know some of these attempts will fail too.
This advice might be especially important for women. And I’ll tell you a little anecdote.
There is a literary magazine called Tin House. The editor of Tin House, a man called Rob Spillman, was distressed when he realized his magazine was publishing a lot more male writers than female writers, but he hadn’t noticed this at first because he never really paid much attention to gender. But once he started paying attention, he said he noticed a big difference between how men and women submit their fiction to his magazine. Or, more precisely, a big difference in the way they react to his rejection of their work. He said that when he rejects female writers they are five times less likely to send him something again, even after he explicitly says, “Please send me your next thing,” whereas 100 percent of men will send him something again after being rejected, even if he says, “Please don’t send me something ever again.” Three seconds later, he gets more.
This is not a scientific study, it’s purely anecdotal, so who knows if there’s this same pattern on a large scale in the world. But still, it’s interesting to think about.
So just think of it this way: the more rejections you get and are willing to get, the likelier you are to succeed eventually, because you’re giving yourself more chances.
In this world, women and minorities often encounter a fair amount of conscious and unconscious sexism and racism. I hope you will fight it when you see it, whether you see it outside or at home; in others or in yourself.
Three years ago I was hanging out at home one evening, browsing Wikipedia, when I noticed something strange. I could see that for the past few months Wikipedia editors had been removing women from the category called “American Novelists” and dumping them in a smaller subcategory called “American Women Novelists.” And they were leaving only male novelists in the main category.
I wrote about my discovery in an op-ed in the New York Times, even though I knew it would probably get some people angry at me—specifically the people on Wikipedia who were doing this, and their friends. Sure enough, it did. My life became very stressful for a while; these people attacked me online, wrote vicious lies about me. But the positive thing that came of my op-ed is that those Wikipedia editors had to stop removing women from the “American Novelists” category. The world would not let them continue once this was exposed. So I’m glad I did it. We often hear people say, “If you see something, say something”. Those are wise words, and not just regarding suspicious-looking packages. By speaking up, you may be putting yourself at risk, but you’re also making the world a better place.
And finally, the last thing I would like to say is that if you encounter a difficult time in your life, an upsetting time, I think you might discover—and perhaps you already have—that often some of the most wonderful things come from bad times. My favorite example in my own life was when I finished writing one of my novels, and sent it to my agent. It was a dark comedy with a very pessimistic view on love. I was 34 years old, had not been lucky in love, had only had bad relationships, and had come to the conclusion that successful romantic relationships didn’t exist, that there were no happy couples, that couples who appeared happy were actually just pretending to be happy and were probably fighting behind closed doors. And that’s what my novel was about. When I finished writing it and sent it to my agent, 9/11 had just happened. Everyone was depressed, and the last thing they were in the mood for (including my agent) was a dark comedy about the nonexistence of love. So my agent told me that my novel was just too dark (even though I, personally, found it quite funny, especially before 9/11). She said it wasn’t ready to be sent out to publishers and that I should work on it more. I was extremely disappointed because I had worked on it not for one month, not for two months, but for a couple of years and had high hopes for it.
Out of a kind of despair, I decided to form a writing group consisting of my writer friends, and we would meet on a regular basis and critique one another’s novels, just like in those creative writing workshops I had enjoyed so much. One of the people I invited into the group was not a friend of mine, but a friend of a friend whose reading I had been to six years previously. He and his writing had made a strong impression on me, and even though I had met him only that one time and had not seen him in six years, I contacted him through our mutual friend and asked him if he’d like to join my writing group. He said yes. He became the great love of my life and we’ve been together now for 14 wonderful years. If my agent had liked my novel right off the bat, I would not now be with this wonderful person, and I would probably still be writing novels about the nonexistence of love.
In closing, I’d like to encourage you all to dive, headfirst, into the pursuit of your dreams and keep moving forward. Keep working towards your dreams with the right mix of urgency and patience. Urgency will help you make the most progress wherever and whenever you can. Patience will help you navigate the obstacles—some expected, some unexpected—that get thrown in your path. Don’t let the hard times bring you down too much, because remember that those hard times will often have a silver lining. Whatever you set out to achieve, it’s best to enjoy the journey, however long it takes.
Amanda Filipacchi is the author of four novels: Nude Men (Viking/Penguin 1993), Vapor (Carroll & Graf, 1999), Love Creeps (St. Martin’s Press, 2005), and The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty (W. W. Norton, 2015). Her fiction has been translated into 14 languages and been anthologized in The Best American Humor 1994 (Simon & Schuster),Voices Of the X-iled (Doubleday), and The Good Parts: The Best Erotic Writing in Modern Fiction(Berkley Books).