The Writer's Guide to Agony and Defeat, #3.

You Become Paralyzed By The Fear Of Failure

You have a great idea for a book and you make the time to start in on it – and then you start thinking about what it would be like to fail. There are a thousand ways to fail! 

You imagine spending hours every day sitting at your desk, writing, writing, writing – and never writing anything decent enough to show to anyone. 

You imagine telling all your friends you’re writing a book – and then having to tell them that, no, you’re not; you couldn’t hack it. 

You imagine sending your work out to agents or editors and getting back an impersonal, thoughtless rejection. “We’re sorry, but your work doesn’t fit into our publishing plans at this time….” 

You imagine giving up work, pay and productivity to get this book done – and never earning a dime for your efforts. 

You imagine that you publish the book – and no one cares. It doesn’t make a single ripple in the pond of the world. You end up with boxes of the book in your garage, where they yellow and mold along with your old tax returns.

You imagine that you publish the book – and it’s raked over the coals on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and no one ever speaks of it again, although the fact of it sits there like an elephant in every room you enter.

You imagine your mother reading your book – and saying, “It was very interesting, Dear.” 

These images of failure become so vivid that they you can’t see be-yond them. You become unable to write. You become unable to move forward. You quit.


Everyone is scared of failure. We live our whole lives trying to avoid failure, but to what end? None whatsoever. Stop thinking of fear as the enemy. Stop waiting for the fear to go away. Fear is an essential part of the process. If you’re not scared, you’re not likely to produce anything worthwhile.

“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an in-dicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Re-member one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
 ― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art


The Writers' Guide to Agony and Defeat: Intro

The Writer's Guide to Agony and Defeat

Writing a book is like childbirth: no one ever tells you exactly how painful the process is going to be, and when you are in the middle of hurting you wonder if you are, perhaps, the only person in the history of the world who has ever felt exactly this awful. I’ve been a writer for 25 years, and a writing instructor and coach for seven, and I have either witnessed or experienced every possible kind of writerly pain. The possibilities for agony and defeat are everywhere – at the start of the process when a book idea is forming in your mind and doubt is pounding on the door; in the middle of the process when you begin to show your words to the world and fear gnaws at you like a dis-ease; and at the end of the process when you hope your work will find an adoring audience and must come face to face with how much greed and envy have taken up residence in your heart. It can be a brutal business – but like childbirth, the deep satisfactions on the “pro” side tend to outweigh the long list of “cons,” and so we forge ahead, writing our stories and often suffering our heartache.

I recently endured a seventh-month wait for my seventh book to find a publishing home. Every day my novel failed to sell, I imagined that my writing career – this thing I had nurtured since fourth grade and that I thought had grown unshakably strong – was coming to a quiet, bitter, wretched end. I’d had a good run, but it was over. I thought I might never get to write again. When friends would ask how things were going, I would shake my head and say, “Not well.” But people don’t empathize with a writer’s private agonies – it’s not like it’s cancer or global financial meltdown – and they would quickly move on to talk about the latest Bourne movie or the beauti-ful heirloom tomatoes they got at the farmers’ market. This made me even sadder, because now instead of just feeling like a tortured art-ist, I felt tortured and ridiculous. I had, after all, chosen to be a writer.

The enlightenment gurus say that you should “feel what you feel” so I began to wallow even deeper into my misery. I began to catalog the specific agonies of the writing life. I came up with 43. I figured I could turn my pain into something useful for my fellow writ-ers who might feel less bleak about writing when they recognize their own particular moment of wretchedness set down on the page. I thought we could all feel a little less alone. 

My story did not have a happy ending. My seventh book did not sell. I have published six books with major New York houses but book number seven turned out not to be so lucky. The irony is that it is far and away the best book I have written. The first six books helped me get to the place where I could write a much better book, but their less-than-blockbuster track record hamstrung me. I’m a midlist writer with modest sales numbers, and so now I am a writer with a book that has no home. Yes, of course, I have choices about how to proceed – self publishing, e-book publishing – and those things are happening. It’s a good time to be a writer because there are so many more opportunities available to us than there were in the days of the Algonquin Roundtable. But opportunity is not what this story is about. This is a story of pain – of the precise kind of pain writers are heir to. 

I will be posting the 43 moments one at a time here. The complete collection is available for purchase as a download HERE.