Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Failures of Your Favorite Authors

If you're filled with self-doubt and have faced with crushing defeats in your writing, take heart: it happens to the best of us.  ♦ 
As writers, we can all relate to failure. Failure is a fact of life, no matter what field you find yourself in; it just so happens us writers enjoy the throes of failure more often than others. We toil and pour our soul into crafting and refining our art for months, even years, to often no avail. But, this is no reason to fret. Whether it be personal or professional, failure also found its way into the lives of some of the most successful and influential writers in history. Yet they prevailed. So, let us not be discouraged in what has been; rather, let us focus on what could be in exploring some of the failures of your favorite authors.

I’ll begin by allowing you to guess the first writer: a beloved American icon who, after World War I, became deeply depressed and began writing in the league of the “Lost Generation” in bohemian Paris. A Nobel Prize found itself in his trophy case in 1954, only for the author to suffer two plane crashes the same year. Seven years later, after a long bout of paranoia and as many as fifteen sessions of electroshock therapy, he was found dead with his favorite shotgun in hand. He left an estate in Key West filled with his famous polydactyl cats.

Ernest Hemingway had his lumps handed to him his entire life, which was marked by tragedy and unluck. An Austrian mortar shell nearly killed him during his time as a Red Cross paramedic in World War I. Regarding the incident, he claims he survived the explosion with “237 bits of shrapnel, an aluminum kneecap, and two Italian decorations.”

His largest writing failure was during a meeting in Switzerland. His wife was packing to visit him and, wanting to surprise him, brought all of his writing projects. That would normally be a sweet gesture, but her faux pas was bringing everything. Absolutely everything. She brought all the carbons, every paper copy, literally his whole body of work. And of course, that suitcase got lost. This was in 1923, and Hemingway didn’t want to write for years after. Finally, in an attempt to compose a new body of work, he wrote quickly and in a “lean” fashion, providing him with his famous, skeletal style. That crushing loss of his work would eventually land him the Nobel Prize for Literature thirty years later.

Dr. Seuss almost didn’t make it into the mainstream due to his struggles, either. You probably haven’t heard of And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street, as it’s not nearly a Green Eggs and Ham. He got the idea while stuck on a boat while returning from Europe—the boat’s engine was apparently loud and repetitive lending him a rhythm for his writing. Dr. Seuss went to twenty-seven different publishers and twenty-seven publishers turned his book down. He lost hope until one day he was walking home in New York City and bumped into a friend from Dartmouth who then worked for a publishing house that specialized in children’s books. That friend got him published and the book became critically acclaimed, inspiring him to write as a career.

Many if not most famed authors have been turned down numerous times by publishers. For example, Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected by thirty publishers. When it was finally accepted by Doubleday, King received the news by telegram, since they'd had their home phone cut off in order to save money. The telegram read: “CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD.”

Likewise, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected twelve times. Rowling finally caught a break when an editor at Bloomsbury Publishing read it to her eight-year-old daughter, who loved it. Today there are more than 500 million Harry Potter books in print worldwide, and Rowling's share of the books alone has been estimated at over a billion dollars.

One of Rowling’s inspirations, J. R. R. Tolkien, struggled with self-doubt about The Lord of the Rings. The world was in the throes of World War II as Tolkien, then a famed professor at Oxford University, worked on the book. Bombings occurred daily and Tolkien worried about the future of his novel. He had written an entire language and history for his setting and began to face doubts about if his novel would be read. He also worried about the complexity of his story: would he be able to finish the novel with no holes? Would the story’s world and narrative be appreciated? We all face doubts like these, especially when we’ve invested years, even decades, of our lives to projects. Yet he persevered and sold one of the most loved and well-known novels in history.

We even have records of Charles Darwin stressing about the legitimacy of his work. In an 1861 letter to his friend Charles Lyell, Darwin summed up his mood this way: “I am very poorly today and very stupid and hate everybody and everything.” Further, he was considered merely average in school and dropped out to become a parson. He would later publish On the Origin of Species and become one of the most influential intellectuals of all time, though upon publication the New York Times reviewed his text unfavorably, saying, “Shall we frankly declare that, after the most deliberate consideration of Mr. Darwin’s arguments, we remain unconvinced?”

Mary Shelley’s first novel Frankenstein was published in 1818 to public acclaim, though mixed reviews. But following Frankenstein, Shelley would write six more novels, none of them matching the first's success. After her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley's death in 1822, her writing had to support her and their young son, which put even more stress on her work. While writing one of her more forgotten novels, The Last Man, Shelley wrote in her journal, “Amidst all the depressing circumstances that weigh on me, none sinks deeper than the failure of my intellectual powers; nothing I write pleases me.”

Nearly dying countless times, losing your entire body of work, self-doubt, mental illness, rejection from publishers. None of these prevented some of the greatest works of all time from being written. What all of these artists had in common was perseverance. They were determined in themselves and wrote even when it seemed hopeless. Take what you will from any of this; whether you think exceptional people get exceptions or not, there is an undeniable trend that you cannot succeed without determination.

  • About the Author
    Antonio Vazquez Lim is a Political Science and Philosophy double major enrolled at Miami University as a first-year student and is interested in pursuing a JD/Ph.D. after undergrad. He’s a proud West Virginian who enjoys creative and philosophical writing, powerlifting, and caring for his tortoises in his spare time.

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