Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Robert the Publisher's Gem of the Day

Late last night, Robert and I were both still at work. He called me into his office and told me to sit, then gestured to the little black single-serving coffee maker by his phone. "Want a cup?" he asked.

"Um, ok," I said. I'm not the kind of person who should be drinking coffee after 10 am but I was already pretty nervous about what he wanted to talk about and didn't think declining was a good idea.

"Do you take milk?"

"Yes," I said apprehensively. Was he keeping milk under his desk? If so, how long had it been there? But then I saw the non-dairy creamer on the bookshelf and relaxed--a little.

I watched him plunk in the coffee pod over a mug he had produced from some dusty corner and stab the "brew" button with all the slow-motion precision of one's grandfather. "Well, we have a lot to talk about," he said. "We did not have very good news today, did we."

"Not really," I said. I was a nervous wreck; I had received what we'll call an unpromising piece of information about a book of mine that's supposed to be coming out in a couple months, and I was particularly worried about how I was going to get us out of the jam.

"Well," he said, placing the full hot coffee cup in front of him and popping the top of the non-dairy creamer open. "Bad things happen; people lie; reviews fall through. We hemmorhage cash over things we were sure would work beautifully, and just hope we make enough off of our strong backlists to survive. I'm not saying we want bad things to happen," he continued, tapping an awful lot of surprisingly gelatinous creamer into the cup in front of him, "nor should weexpect them necessarily, but we shouldn't fear them." He looked pensively into the coffee, where the non-dairy creamer floated stubbornly on top in two amoeba-esque clumps, then removed his glasses, folded one leg down, and submerged the lenses into the coffee, stirring briskly. When the coffee was good and... blended, I guess you'd say, he withdrew the glasses and tapped them observantly on the rim of the mug, then looked up to catch my eye. "What's the matter? Oh no, did you say you didn't want cream?"

"No, cream's great," I assured him, and took the proffered cup.

"Yes, well, as I was saying," he continued, pushing the glasses back up his formidable nose, "I have been in publishing a long, long time. I have published many books that failed, but I do not fear failure. You simply can't fear failure." He paused. "Are you afraid of failure?"

"More than anything in the world," I answered, before I could think it through.

"Huhn." Robert peered at me. A tear of coffee ran down his cheek and made a brown circle on his lemon-colored shirt. "Huhn. Well. This has been very interesting." He clasped his hands. "Well, you answered honestly, which is good. But tell me, what good does fear of failure do you?"

"It helps you pre-empt the worst case scenario," I replied.

"No, no, this isn't a rhetoric exercise," he said. "I want you to think about that, whether being afraid of failure really helps you. It must be awfully exhausting."

"It is," I said, thinking of the tightness in my torso and the wrinkles accumulating on my forehead, the anxiety and scrambling each week, the churlish re-editing and re-re-editing, the arteries hardening in my chest. I raised my swirling duatone coffee to my mouth. I figured the consequences of my fears had to be worse for me than the consequences of the coffee.

Now that I've spent the night thinking about it, I think that Robert's advice to me about being a book publisher really applies to anyone who wants to work in the industry in any capacity--but perhaps especially to writers. To sustain a state of high tension and desperation--you know, the kind the whole submission process usually creates--is not only physically exhausting, it's creatively exhausting. It also makes us less likely to make wise decisions when we're presented with opportunities. Paychecks aside--and let's face it, even the best-paid among us would-be publishing/published peeps don't make THAT much money--I think we survive by letting go of a fear of failure. Our desperation makes us lose sight of what we got into this for--in many cases, to write. Writing is the joy, and if you are joyful you have not failed. We should be happy when good things come about, but not live in fear that they won't.

Easier said than done, of course. But I'm going to make a conscious effort going forward.

87 comments:

Rick Daley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Daley said...

Thanks to you and RtP. This is sage advice and it transcends publishing and can apply to virtually all industries. The greatest danger is that fear of failure will prevent you from even trying. That's a virtue I try to instill in my children.

On another note, I recommend you start drinking your coffee black.

writtenwyrdd said...

Sounds like excellent advice. The thing that does keep most of us from finishing a story, putting it out there, or even trying to start one is frequently fear of failure.

Ann Finkelstein said...

Thanks for that post.

And I'll also confess a fear of really bad coffee.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Moonie. So true.

Tez Miller said...

And yet the thing that sticks in my mind the most...He stirred the coffee with his spectacles?!

Kristi Faith said...

What a gem, indeed. Thank you for sharing such jarring wisdom.

I enjoyed your post and was right there with you in the office, dreading to drink the concoction, but nervous enough to do it anyway. Thanks for the smile today!

Andrea Cremer said...

Thank you for that wonderful story - great advice for all of us.

Alissa said...

Very good and thought-provoking advice. Also, I am glad I prefer to drink tea and that I take it without milk.

JKB said...

Brilliant. I talked about a related thing this very morning on my blog, but I like RtP advice much better.

Well done, sir.

*yaks slightly at idea of RtP spectacles stirring your cup o' joe*

JenniferWriter said...

Thanks, Moonie, I needed that. Like you, I live in constant fear of failure--as if I'm still going to be graded on my performance. I often think other people are judging me for my questionable decision to write full time when they probably just want me to be happy.

I have a great quote above my desk by Natalie Goldberg, "You will succeed if you are fearless of failure."

Ann Victor said...

Failure can be our friend and our greatest teacher...if we embrace it as an experience to move through, rather than as something we actively seek to avoid. Here's a favourite quote dealing with failure:

"We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success; we often discover what will do by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery."
–Samuel Smiles

Bruce Pollock said...

But you forgot to mention Fear of Failure's hulking older brother: Fear of Success

mashadutoit said...

"and if you are joyful you have not failed." That is so true!

Using fear as a goad will work for a while, but its not sustainable. And not only that, it drains away the joy. And then what are you left with?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if anyone could remain a writer if they had a very active fear of failure.

You write a novel. It fails to interest anyone, because it's awful.
You write another. It also fails completely.
You write another. You get a few positive rejection letters, but fail to get any active interest.
You write another. An agent is v. interested, but you fail to get an offer of representation.
You write another. You get an agent, but fail to sell the book to a publisher.
You write another. You get an offer, but you fail to get a living wage. Then you fail to get a decent cover. Then you fail to to get readers and fail to earn out.
You write another.

And that's uncomfortably close to the best-case scenario.

Mr. Cheerful

Laurel said...

1. Sorry to hear you had bad news on a project you're excited about. That always sucks.

2. RtP sounds really smart, like the Jedi master of publishing or something, and like an awesome guy to work with.

3. You're a kick-ass writer. I laughed at the details and still had sweaty palms reading this. I know that feeling all too well and it is mighty and dreadful!

I hope today brings something glorious.

JES said...

Second Laurel's comment #3. I plan to hang onto this post's URL so that if anyone says, cynically, "Editors must not be able to write, otherwise they'd be writers," I can throw this in his or her face.

(Oh, and I think Robert is right, too.)

Pamala Knight said...

What Laurel said!

I love the way that you and Robert both entertain and inform us. Sage words and good advice delivered in a way that resonates and is relative, gives inspiration of the best kind.

jjdebenedictis said...

Excellent advice, and thank you for passing it on.

Just don't pass on any of the skeevy-creamer-and-ear-jam cooties you picked up from that coffee to us.

Marshall Buckley said...

In my "real" job, I'm an IT Techy. In this job, there is a similar thing: fear of making mistakes. It's just as bad, and just as wrong.

I'm a good techy because I've made lots of mistakes. Or, more accurately, because I learned from them (and rarely make the same mistake twice).

I don't think it's bad to fear failure, it's how you handle it that makes the difference.

beth said...

That was beautifully written.

Personally, my fear isn't failure--not yet. My fear is never getting far enough to have a chance to fail. It's close to the same thing, but...after trying and trying and trying and still not having my name on a book's spine, I fear giving up. I'm not ready to yet--I'm still fighting the good fight--but I fear the day when I decide it's not worth it, and give up.

(And I know it's ever so easy to say "I'll never give up!" but the reality is...I might. If another decade passes, and my job becomes harder, and I start having kids...I might. And that's my fear.)

Adam Heine said...

Good post. I constantly forget, in my attempts at success, to take joy in what I write for its own sake.

Carolyn said...

I loved this post. Thanks you.

Carleen Brice said...

Hope things work out with the book, but Robert is quite right. I came to this conclusion myself, as a writer.

Indigo said...

I read over this twice. I needed the second reading to ascertain Robert did in fact use his glasses to stir the coffee *shudder*.

It's amusing how the eccentric personalities, usually give sage advice.

I think a healthy dose of fear keeps us sharp and attuned. As a writer, I've had that 'fear of failure' trauma going on from time to time. If I were asked, "Do you see yourself doing anything else?"

Honestly? No.

I think it's the same way for you. We fear failure because we put so much of ourselves into whatever we do. If it were meaningless to us we wouldn't care less. (Hugs)Indigo

Melanie Avila said...

I cannot believe you drank that coffee. *shudders*

Thank you for this post. As Rick said this advice transcends publishing and as I'm in need of some non-fear right now, I appreciate this.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

For all his strangenss, it sounds like R the P is on your side in the things that count.

Tina Connolly said...

Lovely and also hilarious.

Susan Adrian said...

So. True.

And I needed the reminder. Thanks, moonie, and Robert the P!

(also, a bit creeped out about the glasses-stirring thing.)

Susan at Stony River said...

Well, I tried to cry for you, but I was laughing too hard; I love your RtP stories.

Whatever the situation is, good luck getting through it -- and thank you for knocking our fears of failure down a few pegs today.

Chad Sayban said...

Very sound advice, indeed.

Kate said...

Wow Moonie! A Double Bonus Post - sage advice and a writing lesson in one! You built the tension from the first paragraph and the two separate arcs bouncing off each other cranked it up like a nuclear reaction. I ignored seven instant messages from my coworker while reading it. Result: I won't forget RtP's lesson any time soon.

Larissa said...

Excellent post, Moonrat. First, great, great point about holding onto the joy of what we do.

Second, I am STILL laughing out loud about RtP stirring your coffee with his glasses. And, I cannot believe you drank it!

Wow.

Thanks for the wisdom, and the laugh of the day. :)

JEM said...

Great advice! It's important for us writers to know that even if the book we're working on isn't a huge bestseller, there will always be another story waiting behind it to be told. If there isn't one, then we're not really writers ;)

Lucy Woodhull said...

"If you are joyful, you have not failed..."

Words to live by. Thanks!

Karen Mahoney said...

Dearest Moonrat (and RtP),

This is such a great post.

Thank you.

Um... that's all. :)

Susan McBride said...

"Writing is the joy, and if you are joyful you have not failed."

Amen to that, Moonrat! How'd the coffee taste, BTW? A little like eyeglass cleaner, perhaps? You are braver than you know. ;-)

Cheers,
Susan

Whirlochre said...

Fear of failure is the self-inflicted shriveller of the muse. Anything, really.

Funluvinchick said...

I was more entranced by the fact that he put the glasses back on without cleaning them... I hate having dirty glasses -_-

However, the message was very clear about having fear of failure. My boyfriend gets extremely frustrated with me at times because of my own "fear of failure." If I share this blog's post with him (as I'm so apt to do) I know he's going to say "See, I told you so!" But it's worth it because this is a blog post worth sharing...I'm even going to share it with an old friend. Thanks moonie (and of course RtP for sharing such advice in the first place).

Oh...and could you pass on my advice to RtP to get a spoon?

Sierra Godfrey said...

This was lovely, Moonrat.

And timely. Last night I lay awake, first paralyzed by fear of not having paid bills on time, so got out of bed and went down to my laptop and paid three bills. Felt better, went back to bed. Then worried about fear of being working mother and not raising young whippersnapper myself. Then fear of massive earthquake and foundation of house cracking in two. Followed by fear of running out of water and making special mental note to self to stock up on gallons of water in garage--and canned food. But fear of having to eat disgusting canned ravioli and kidney beans for months on end. Then fear of having to move out of house while neighborhood recovers from foundation-cracking earthquake, and where we would go. Mother in law's house! Fear of her spare bedroom and how dusty it is. Fear of asking mother in law if she could please, if she didn't mind, clean that spare bedroom out--thoroughly? Fear of her not doing it thoroughly and then sneezing from dust.

So, timely post. Thank you.

Rebecca Knight said...

Great advice, and I agree with whoever said you are an awesome writer :).

The coffee tear sliding down his cheek killed me.

But it's so true. We'll be crippled before we even begin if we let the fear overtake us. Thanks, Moonie!

Lydia Sharp said...

Aw, ratty, this was so sweet and discouraging and uplifting all at the same time. If you're ever in the Cleveland area, I'll take you out for coffee. Real coffee. The kind you can drink.

Wendy Sparrow said...

Awesome post (both for the freaky coffee episode and the words of wisdom) and really what I needed today. Thanks.

CKHB said...

Thank you, and thanks to Robert. This was helpful. Really.

Ulysses said...

You may be entertained (and you will be informed) by Kristine Kathryn Rusch's latest installment of her Freelancer's Survival Guide.

She makes a strong case for failure being necessary for success. It is a thing to be avoided when possible, to be planned for when possible, to be endured when actual, but not to be feared.

The video links put it all into perspective, and I hope someday to fail in the footsteps of those she mentions.

Chris Eldin said...

LOVE it!!! Bravo!!!
Oh, this one is a classic. You should have a Hall of Fame on the sidebar.
:-)

Dana said...

Moonie-- I <3 you. :)
This post was not only amazingly written, it really hit home. Thanks for the reminder.

Dawn VanderMeer said...

Thanks, Moonie.

Deb Salisbury said...

Brilliant post, great advice.

You had me in the odd position of tensed up with misery, rolling on the floor with laughter, and gagging on the coffee, all at once.

My goodness! :-D

Miriam S.Forster said...

As someone who not only fears failure, but also tends to feel that failure invalidates past success, I needed to hear this.

Thank you.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

Those are some fine-quality words of wisdom. And good on you for drinking that metaphor-laced scary coffee--what doesn't kill you, and all that.

Jared Stein said...

Great story, especially because I can't determine whether the coffee-stirring was true or embellishment.

gringo said...

I hope that my next publisher is just like Robert and my next editor is just like you.

This is the most human thing I've ever read out of the publishing blogs.

Anita said...

Amen, Moonrat Sister.

Sarah said...

Well said!

Rick's right- this applies to just about everything. (The new job I started, for instance.)

When fear of failure dominates me, my world fades Things I Screw Up and Things I Don't Screw Up. It's a monochromatic existence. Refusing to fear (and for me, it's a choice) lets me view the world in ... well color, if I'm going to carry the analogy.

Ebony McKenna. said...

This post spoke to me. Fear can be a huge motivator, but it can also cause paralysis. I guess it's all about finding that middle ground.

Ben-M said...

Great post, and great advice. Of course, taking it to heart is hard after years (and years, and years) of reinforcing its opposite through the day to day grind of life.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice - thanks to you and Robert! This also reminded me of why I prefer black tea (Earl Grey of course) to coffee :)

Amalia T. said...

That was excellent!

and it reminds me of something I read in a book about writing, One Continuous Mistake : Four Noble Truths for Writers by Gail Sher. She says, "If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write." Very much in spirit with your Joyful comment. And I absolutely agree. I write because I love to write. I write because it's fun, because my characters keep me up at night and I love finding their journeys. As long as its fun, and I'm enjoying myself, it doesn't feel at all like failure.

Richard Lewis said...

Great post!

I too have been known to stir my coffee with my glasses, but I generally wipe them off before I put them back on.

lisa peet said...

Mmm, timely. Thank you.

I stir my coffee with pens and pencils. I think that's maybe why I'm a writer in the first place.

Simon Hay said...

RtP is the new Deepak Chopra. You're making him famous. Good post. Worst coffe or tea stirring moment - a morning slaughtering sheep and then stirring with the blade.

Matilda McCloud said...

Great post...thanks...

Nondairy creamer? Ick!

The thing about publishing is you never know--even the project that seems doomed may take off.

DebraLSchubert said...

A glaring reminder of why I don't drink coffee. Oh, yeah. And why I will no longer fear failure! Seriously, thanks for this incredibly well-written and meaningful post. ;-)

Vonna said...

Oh, how I loved this post! I am having lunch with some other writers today and I am taking a copy of this with me. Thanks.

Sharen Ford said...

Thank you, Moonrat. That was a beautifully written and a much-appreciated reinforcement to these wise words I heard at a writers' gathering last weekend:

Some people focus so much on the pot of gold, they forget to enjoy the rainbow.

Natalie Whipple said...

I think I'm just starting to figure this out. While sometimes I can still be a big ball of nerves, I'm trying to be happy NOW with the things I have NOW. Now use fretting over the things I can't control.

Patience-please said...

I came here as directed ("Read This") from Janet Reid's blog.

I am so glad I did. I believe I shall print this out and tape it to the side of my monitor, facing forward, daring me to face my own worst fear.

Thank you. Dang!

Melissa Walker said...

Thanks for this, and thanks to Sara Zarr for pointing me here. Today I'll write with less fear!

Anonymous said...

I'm an agent and sometimes my fear of failure ON BEHALF OF SOMEONE ELSE is almost paralyzing. Editors must feel that way sometimes, too. RtP is so right and I really needed to hear this right now.

Thanks so much for your blog--I've learned so much from you (and, by proxy, RtP)!

Breanna said...

Well, to echo many other people on this here comment thread, thank you for this post. It was timely for me as well.

Why do some of us have a crippling fear of failure, while others of us don't? I guess it's a nature vs. nurture thing. In my case, I was a hypersensitive perfectionist as a child, and my parents nurtured that so as not to "traumatize" me. Sometimes I wish they had pushed me a little harder, but oh well. Part of the fun of being an adult has been recognizing that my problems are, in fact, MY problems.

The other part of the fun is therapy. Lots of therapy.

P.S. I really heart RtP.

T. Anne said...

Well written and well received.

Kate said...

Great post and really good advice. Thanks for posting

Kate xx

Anonymous said...

That was an awesome piece of writing. And good advice.

Livia said...

I decided a while ago that I can't control whether or not I get published, but I can control whether or not I regret not having tried harder. So that's what I focus on, and I do my best.

Anna Claire said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

Scobberlotcher said...

Inspiring post!

One of my favorite quotes is "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt." - Sylvia Plath

The Sesquipedalian said...

Fantastic post, Moonie. Simply fantastic. It's something I really need to remember when those lingering doubts begin to scrape away at my self confidence. I write because I love to write. Fear, of failure or others' opinions, should not enter anywhere into the picture.

VR Barkowski said...

Thank you, Moon. I'm inspired.

Jan Markley said...

Awesome post, but, ah ... get that man a stir stick! ;-j

Cheers, Jan

Mary said...

A wonderful post! So true!

Natasha Fondren said...

Oh, Moonrat, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. What a perfect story to read today. Thank you so much, from my heart. I need to read this every day, at least until I learn its lesson well.

siebendach said...

This is for "beth". Two days is an eternity on a blog, I know.

You shouldn't ONLY not fear failure.

Don't fear giving up!

I gave up on being published a long time ago. And guess what . . . I'm back now!

laughingwolf said...

right on, moonie...and next time add a splash of jack daniel's to that 'coffee', if only to kill bob's cooties! ;)

Carrie said...

Really fantastic post - thanks!

Irene S. Levine, PhD said...

Thanks, Moonrat. Go forth bravely!

Jolie said...

"More than anything in the world," I answered, before I could think it through.

I'm sorry, but HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

And re: fear of failure, I will simply mention that a solidly bestselling--and I do mean household name kind of bestselling--author recently called the agency and talked to his/her agent for twenty minutes about his/her position on the bestseller lists. Nobody is exempt from the anxiety.