Brandon R. Schrand

On Failure

When you Google the words failure + literary + writer in a single search, you will be greeted with 1,970,000 returns. It’s an ominous but not surprising number. Of course not all of those returns deal explicitly with the literary writer as failure, but most do, and I think the number of returns reflects a certain inescapable truth about our business: the writing life is shaped, in one way or another, by failure. It’s one of the only careers in which you begin as a failure. Failure is the baseline, the starting point. Curious about my search results, I thought I would put the number of returns in context of other careers. This is what I learned:

A search for the words failure + librarian yields an alarming if depressing 400,000 results.

A search for failure + cryptozoologist retrieves only 73,600 results.

Googling failure + “worm farmer” yields a mere 508 returns.

And finally, you’ll be happy to know that a search for failure + “cheese attendant” will give you 0 returns.

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from my inquiry, I’m not sure what it is. However, it does strike me as peculiar, refreshing even, that to be a writer engaged in a profession that is colored by failure is another way of saying you are among friends, that there is safety in numbers, as they say. On the other hand, if you failed as a cheese attendant, you would be the first and only failure in that unsung occupation. The cheese attendant would stand alone, in other words, and that cheese attendant would be you.

In the writing life, failure has a shape. It is tangible and tactile and real, and it is called the rejection letter. It is an unpleasant bit of business to see in writing that what you have created, what you imagined to be good—nay, great!—is not up to snuff. Some rejection letters, of course, are worse than others. The form rejection, and we’ve all received it, is the iciest of rejections. But even they vary in their relative iciness. A large form rejection letter at least feels substantial; it feels as if they were at least willing to shell out the nickel for that full-size sheet of paper to tell you, “Thanks, but no thanks, kid.” It’s when you receive the form rejection on a slip of paper the size of a bookmark, or fortune pulled from a fortune cookie, that the iciness begins to get to you. There’s an unbearable lightness to it all. Once, a few years ago, I sent a piece to a magazine feeling as one does on submission day: hopeful, poised, dreamy-eyed. This is it, you tell yourself. This is the one! This is where my career begins, and failure ends. Goodbye darkness, my old friend! And with this attitude, I whistled all the way home from the post office, sure-footed and brimming with writerly confidence. Imagine my disappointment, then, when three months later, I received not just one tiny form rejection letter but two in the same envelope. It’s bad enough to be rejected once in such a cold, indifferent manner, but to have a single piece rejected twice strikes me as, well, malicious. I can still recall pacing my living room. It must have been a sight. A frantic man waving two fortune-cookie sized slips of paper madly about yelling, “Two? Two? Why two!?

And so sometimes I question my sanity. This is what living in the face of constant rejection and failure does—or can do—to a writer. For instance, I have long held a [conspiracy] theory that my mail carrier knows that I am a writer. It would be easy enough to deduce. The Poets & Writers magazines, The New Yorker subscription, the half-dozen literary journals that arrive quarterly, the occasional checks, the pitifully thin self-addressed stamped envelopes, and so on. So she knows that I am a writer and knows all about the writing life—the submission process followed by the anticipation and agony of waiting months on end for some response from magazine editors. And here’s the thing: she knows all this and she hates me because she, too, is a struggling writer and views me as the competition. And what better way to weed out the competition than to ditch/lose/destroy his mail, all those stacks of acceptances from magazines, the endless solicitations from editors of the slicks, announcements of awards and prizes I never knew I was nominated for, the checks for unremembered services rendered? The losses could be considerable.

Therefore, anytime I check the mail only to find a batch of pizza coupons and an overdue bill, I’m suspect. In fact, I downright blame her. It’s sabotage, I tell myself. Sometimes I won’t get any mail at all. I’ll lift the letter box lid only to see its cold, indifferent emptiness—a brassy metallic shine with my distorted face reflecting back. Here again, you can see the frenzied man pacing his living room again, shouting, “None? None??!! No mail!?

I think waiting is the hardest part of failure. Quick failure I can take. But the longer a piece languishes at a magazine, the more I begin to puzzle and stew. The imagination works overtime. You enter a bi-polar phase after, say, six months of waiting for a response. What could this mean? You wonder. It means they’re reading it. It means they have already read it. Several times. You imagine the piece surfing from one editor’s desk to another, gradually making its way to The Editor Supreme, picking up gold stars along the way. You imagine all the assistant editors calling out their favorite lines from your piece, reading each one aloud. Then you catch yourself indulging this kind of foolish, foolish thinking. No, it isn’t being read it at all, you think. It’s buried in a stack of manila envelopes in a corner somewhere. The janitor used it to swat a spider and its gore is still stuck to your submission which, by the way, now resides in the custodial closet where it sits under a jug of pink cleanser. Or worse: it’s been lost, misplaced. Some apple-munching intern accidentally kicked it under the soda machine where it will stay until the magazine folds or the machine dies and is carted away. Or! It never even reached the magazine at all! And then your thoughts circle back to the mail carrier.

Seven months pass.

Then eight, and still nothing.

When you submitted your heartbreaking work of staggering genius it was on a golden, autumnal day. The clock tower’s bells had sung their hourly dirge and maple leaves skittered across the sun-warmed pavement. Then autumn took its bow and you saw the first snows come, and still nothing. The holidays came and went, you’ve gained five pounds, and still no word. The snows gave out and spring reached through the wan, wintry light. Flowers bloomed. Robins snatched up worms in the wet green grass. Rivers surged, and still nothing. You’ve grown bleary-eyed, forlorn. You meet the letter carrier with a wary gaze, too tired for paranoia at this point. Spring turns into summer and your neighbor lady chides you about your weeds and how they are creeping through the fence into her immaculate yard, and still you have heard nothing.

This is your life: stacking up months on end, burning time, waiting as your conception of failure—either in the literary arts, or in keeping the weeds down in your garden—throws a longer and more indelible shadow over your days.

The longest bout of nail-biting and thumb-twiddling I had to endure was just over a year. I had submitted an essay to a posh journal on recommendation from one of my creative writing professors. I was a second year MFA student in a three-year program, and had by that point placed two publications with fairly recognizable journals. And so I submitted the piece to said posh literary journal, and the waiting commenced. By the time I received my rejection letter—which was letter-sized, typed, and personally addressed to me—my life had changed quite dramatically. On the one hand, I was elated to receive such a “positive” rejection letter (read: a good failure; i.e. “You’re good kid, but not that good”), but on the other hand, I was furious. It had been over a year. And the magazine disallowed simultaneous submissions, a rule I followed religiously. Here again, you can see the furious man making tracks in his living room, shouting, “A year? A year?” It was the first time I was tempted to write back to an editor. But I didn’t, thank God. But if I had written back to the editor of Posh Literary Magazine, I would have said this:

Dear Editor:
Thank you for your comments on my essay. I was delighted and pleased by their astuteness and care. I did want to mention something about your response time, however. For sake of context, let me say that in the time that elapsed between my submitting the essay and receiving your attentive rejection letter, my wife and I planned, conceived, and had a child. Her name is Madeline. Soon she will be eating sandwiches.
Brandon R. Schrand

The quickest rejection I ever received, however, was ten days. Once you move past the initial shock, you begin inquiring into postal logistics. You live in the Pacific Time Zone. The magazine is in the Eastern Time Zone. It would take at least three days to reach the magazine, more likely five, and five to send it back, which means they didn’t even read it! The nerve! You think. The utter nerve. But once you’ve sorted all that out, you notice that the sting of quick rejection is fleeting and quick and for this, you are thankful.

Along a similar, though fully paranoid, vein, I have often feared the preemptive rejection letter. I imagine magazine editors who, in trying to cut down their slush pile, come across my name and fire off a letter to weed out another joker. “Dear Brandon R. Schrand,” they would write. “We know you fancy yourself a writer, but ask at this time that you not send any work our way. Best of luck placing it elsewhere.” Courting failure can do strange things to the mind.

But if failure can do strange things to people, so can success. After all, success and failure are the twin heads on the dragon of art. When one breathes fire, the other is bound to extinguish it. And so writing is an uneven business. On those days when I am lucky enough to get a phone call from an editor saying that he or she would love to publish my piece, or when I receive an email amounting to the same kind of good news, I do what all writers do, what fiction writer Daniel Orozco does: I do a little dance in my office and shout, “Whoo-hoo!” This dose of validation is better than any drug. You feel large on those lucky days, as if you might contain multitudes.

So why doesn’t it last?

Why is the dank scent of failure so apt to lurk when the lavender breath of success is itinerant, so quick to vanish like a breeze? Here’s an ever better question: why then do we persist given our residence in the dank quarters of failure, in this arena of daily pain? Are we fated to endure as the stereotypical “tortured souls” who wear all black and haunt the coffee shops? Is it inevitable that we end up as some emaciated species with sunken eyes in a yellow wood condemned to contemplate two diverging roads forever? Or is one head of our dragon necessary to keep the other alive? Indeed, are both heads of this imaginary dragon vital to the process of art? Certainly. Recall what Alan W. Watts said: “If, then, we are to be fully human and fully alive and aware, it seems that we must be wiling to suffer for our pleasures. Without such willingness there can be no growth in the intensity of consciousness.”

It is no great revelation to say it is wise to keep the fires of failure stoked and nearby at all times. Nothing is more pitiful than a writer who, unknowingly, has capsized in the illusion of his own success. It is important then, as Watts argues, to embrace insecurity and fear and self-doubt. It is important, I think, to remain hungry. Hemingway famously talked about hunger in A Moveable Feast. “I was always hungry with the walking and the cold and the working,” he says. Hunger springs eternal for the writer’s imagination.

In the past week, I have received three form rejections, one lengthy hand-written rejection, and one email acceptance—all in response to the same piece. The form rejections were the size of baseball cards as if the editors want you to consider them “collectibles,” cards you could swap with your writer friends. I’ll trade my Threepenny Review rejection for your Gettysburg Review rejection! The hand-written letter was from an editor I admire greatly. He was encouraging, personable, and apologetic. “I’m guessing you’ll place it well,” he wrote. And I did. The email acceptance was what all acceptances are like: congratulatory and business-like. So I have seen in this past week the twin dragon heads at play, and the scents of failure and success have haunted me. And so I go back to work. The fires of failure are stoked and nearby. So is the coffee. And if one can’t find any kind of comfort in these accouterments of the writing life, then one can find solace and safety in the numbers. As writers, we are, after all, legion. We do contain multitudes. We are confident and vulnerable. We are prone to success, even if that success is finishing a paragraph. We are prone to failure, however large or small. And still we write because we are hungry for all the working and the walking and the cold and the warmth of days to come.


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