Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Benefit of Failure

(The following was originally written for a Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents Blog.  It was never used, and I’ve adapted it for my own blog.)


While in graduate school for an MFA, I wrote a work of nonfiction.  The manuscript combined dramatic essays about my experiences as a young physician with the story of my father’s death from cancer.  But I was trying to tell a larger story—one about the awakening of compassion, about recognizing the importance of patients’ rights, and my own coming-of-age as a physician.  It took over three years to write the thing.  A year and a half later I found an agent for the manuscript; he shopped it around to publishers.  No one bought it.

At the time, I was crushed.  I’d put my heart and soul into this work.  But in retrospect I’m lucky it wasn’t published.

Between the time I wrote the manuscript and had it rejected, I suffered from a serious illness.  That experience changed me; it changed my perceptions of medicine, of patients, and of myself as a physician.  I realized I would never write the same book after my illness that I’d written prior to it.  The illness had changed me as a writer and as a person.  When I read through the manuscript today, it seems as though someone else wrote it.

After the rejections, my agent at the time suggested I work on it.  I tried for about six months and returned it to him.  He said, “Nah, it’s not there yet.”  I gradually realized I couldn’t fix it, but I might be able to learn something from it.

I sent it out for an impartial evaluation by a professional at Creative Nonfiction.  The woman sent me a written report that told me what I had instinctively known, but never articulated exactly.  She addressed all those niggling doubts that had plagued me for two years, but I’d hoped no one would notice.  They were hard to pinpoint.  They were problems that are easier to avoid in the first place than to fix, such as inconsistency of voice, inconsistency of pacing, the why of the book (arc and cohesiveness) and ultimately the question of who should care, or engagement of the reader.

My manuscript was a failure, plain and simple.  I never had command of the material.  It lacked an arc.  The transitions didn’t quite work.  It lacked cohesiveness.  The themes didn’t carry through to the end.  The story I was trying to tell was not clear to her.  That made sense, because I had taken too many detours to get there.

When I saw her words on the page, and I finally let go of my own attachment to the book itself, I knew she was correct.  My manuscript would never be a published book.  But it was a terrific opportunity for me to learn from my mistakes.

When I started writing my second book, Good in a Crisis, I kept those issues in mind throughout the process.  I did not begin until the voice and viewpoint was clear to me, until I knew the voice was strong enough to carry the story all the way through.  I knew how it would be begin and how it would change.  I had a strong sense of the arc of the story.  As I put the book together, I kept in mind my previous difficulties with transitions and attempted to make them less jolting, more organic.  With each edit, I wove the themes into patterns that worked their way through the story.  I looked for opportunities for humor and added them when and where I could.  When I finished my first real draft, I felt as thought I had command of this book in a way I never had command of my previous book.  I was in charge of the material.

I found a different agent for Good in a Crisis.  Both agents were great, but agents don’t tell you how to write a book, or how to fix a book that doesn’t work.  For me it has been trial and error.

It has been over two years since I completed this book, six months since it was published.  The publisher has moved on to publicize other products.  While GIAC hasn’t sold very well, I’m proud of my first book.  And I’ve changed again, in the interim since I finished writing it.  As I read out loud at book events, I sometimes cringe, knowing that if I were to write it again today, it would be a different book.  I learn something every day.  I like to think that writing reflects that knowledge.

I wrote the best possible book I had in me as of August, 2011, when Good in a Crisis went to press.  I know more now.  But I believe in bringing everything I know to bear on my writing and in making it as clear as possible. If there’s an easier way to say something, I try to find it.

So here’s my advice since I was supposed to give advice to writers: Tell a story that interests you even though you know the story and have read it a hundred times.  It should still be compelling to you, if you expect to sell it.  Whatever you send to an agent should be nearly flawless.  If it isn’t, don’t send it.  Some things can be fixed.  Some can’t.  If your gut tells you that you have something really good, stick with it.  If your gut tells you there are problems, then there are PROBLEMS!  Sometimes putting a manuscript away, learning from your mistakes, and starting from scratch is the strongest and most positive act of writing there is.  Ideas can be restored.  Bad writing can’t.

Alberto Salazar – Menopause Coach

I recently read a Malcolm Gladwell piece in the New Yorker about Alberto Salazar. It has to be one of Gladwell’s finest essays—more elegant than usual, more poignant. Salazar, the famous distance runner, tolerated incredible physical discomfort in his quest to be the best. Now he excels at coaching. In 2007, Salazar suffered a massive heart attack, sudden death, and was brought back to life. He returned to work nine days later. The story seems nothing short of miraculous. A few nights ago I watched two of his protégés take the gold and silver medals in the 10,000 meter race at the Olympics. The camera showed a smiling Salazar mouth the words “I coach him!” about the gold medalist, Mo Farah. You have to admire that kind of dedication to running, the ability to run through pain and uncertainty, the competitive spirit that enables them to run marathons and race at the world level.

Perhaps it was timing, perhaps it was seeing Salazar, alive and well, smiling and feeling triumphant, but even I felt motivated! Not to run 10,000 meters or a marathon, mind you. My goal is somewhat less exalted. It is called Couch to 5-K.

In the past year, managing anxiety has become a constant struggle for me. It was a problem before—after the rape, after my heart was broken, and during the time my mother was dying. But I thought I’d conquered it. For some reason it is back with a vengeance.

I blamed the book. The year between selling it and publishing it took its toll on me. I worried constantly that people would judge me, that baring my soul would come back to haunt me. But the opposite occurred. People opened up, happy that I had shared my story. They were glad to have found someone with experiences similar to their own—a compassionate mate. I’ve received letters, emails, notes—all saying thank you. So the book coming to fruition was a blessing in more ways than I can count.

Once the book was published and the letters started to arrive, I thought I would finally relax. Instead, I am not relaxing. I have mood swings and worsening anxiety.

I have exercised to control mild anxiety most of my life. I have biked, done aerobics, taken brisk walks, all in an effort to keep my breathing normal and the unnamed demons at bay. But the usual tricks don’t seem to be working anymore. Bulging disks in my neck keep me off the bike, for the most part, and I’m too tired from working to get myself to the health club. I’ve worked through the rape- and heartbreak-related post-traumatic stress disorder with my therapist, so this resurgence of breathlessness comes as a bit of a surprise. But I can no longer deny its presence.

All in all, things are good. My life is where I want it to be, within reason. My kids are doing well. I have a horrible job, but who doesn’t? I have my little weekend retreat. What the hell is the matter with me?

My AHA moment came when I Googled menopause and anxiety.

It was all there, in black and white. All my symptoms. In a website about menopause. It mentioned mood swings. Hmm. And anxiety. The website reinforced what I’d been loath to suspect: there may be a hormonal reason for my state of mind. And a few relatively straightforward ways to deal with it: mind the caffeine, exercise religiously, meditate, dump the baggage, try yoga, and so on and so forth.

Hormones were to blame. Just as hormones have been to blame for many of life’s ills, for centuries.

My daughter Liz told me about a two-month interval-training program cleverly entitled “Couch to 5-K”. I looked it up online. You can download the original version, in which a lovely British voice tells you when to walk and run. Or you can wear a watch with a second hand and just do it yourself while listening to music. I prefer the second option. But I haven’t run in years. Not since I had two ACL reconstructions, one on each knee.

I don’t plan to run any real distance, mind you. I’m just trying to get off the couch and take a deep breath.

Will I ever run a 5-K? Hard to say. I’ve done the first few days of the program. I’m alive. My knees still work. And I managed a couple of deep breaths today. And while I really hate to blame my hormones for anything, they do tend to control us more than we like. Life is a constant series of trade-offs, e.g. sore knees vs. shortness of breath and a sense of impending doom.

I will never run like Alberto, but I understand what it’s like to be down and come back to life. I’ve done it before. If it takes sore knees, then so be it. I’m packin’ Aleve.