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The Beauty That Follows the Fail

I wrote a couple weeks back about holding a webinar where no one came. Last week, I held another webinar and had 210 registrants. I was so excited to speak to so many writers – and then another problem occurred. My software didn’t work correctly and no one could get in the classroom. Everyone was shut out, and they flooded my inbox with emails asking what was going on. I was frantic and mortified and trying desperately to make it work.  I assumed, of course, that I had done something wrong. I had messed up. It’s what we always assume…

So for the second time in a few months, I went ahead and did the webinar with no one watching. It was for very different reasons, but still, it felt the same: like I couldn’t get this right.

I recorded the webinar then got on the phone to the tech people and learned that what went wrong wasn’t my fault. It was a software glitch. Something that rarely happens, but it happened nonetheless.

When I went through the emails from participants who had been shut out, I realized a very curious thing: Almost every single person who wrote to me assumed that it was their fault. They were at Starbucks and the wifi didn’t seem to be working. They had never done a webinar and must have signed on incorrectly. They must have had the time wrong.

We so often assume it is out fault.

I realized that I see this all the time when writers pitch to agents, especially when submitting full manuscripts at the agent’s request. The writers assume that they don’t hear back right away because their work is not worthy of feedback. But many times, it’s that the agent’s kid was sick. Or their mother died. Or someone hit their car in the grocery store parking lot. Or they never got the email….

We are so hard on ourselves.

We should give ourselves a break.

And we should try to look at these things that go wrong in a totally different way. Because two things happened with my upsetting webinar tech failure, which turned out to be quite wonderful:

1.)  When I explained to everyone what had happened and apologized and sent them the recording of the webinar, people were so terribly nice about it, and forgiving, and comforting. About twenty strangers took the time to tell me not to worry, not to beat myself up, and to thank me for trying. It was very moving and it lifted my spirits. To those of you who did that, thank you for your kindness.

2.)  That same day, I had an assignment from Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and the forthcoming Story Genius. I agreed to develop a novel in the pages of Lisa’s new book so we could show people how the process really works.

Lisa was pushing me on what she calls the “aha moment” scene – the scene when a character in a novel realizes whatever it is they have to realize about themselves and the world, the moment when they GET whatever it is they haven’t been getting. Lisa wanted more specifics than I had on the page. She wanted me to go deeper – “How does your character feel at that moment? What exactly changes her?” she kept asking, and I kept resisting.

 I didn’t know how my character felt except for sad. So I put something simple down – “Ruby feels sad.” Lisa very nicely said, “I need more than that.”

So I put something else down – “And she also feels regret.” Lisa very nicely said, “That’s not deep enough.”

And meanwhile the clock was ticking because Lisa’s editor at Ten Speed/Random House was waiting.

I thought about giving up – I mean, why not? Does anyone really care about this character who doesn’t exist except in my head? The answer is no. They do not.

And then I had my own “aha moment.” I realized I could give my character the experience I had just had in feeling the love of strangers.

Ruby is the writer of a hit TV show. She has 72 hours to rewrite a script and she has to do it without Henry, her writing partner who is also the love of her life and who happens to be on his deathbed. She has been unable to complete this task, and the Internet is on fire with speculation about her mental health and fans offering alternative endings to her show. Writing the script forces Ruby to confront everything about love and loss she has been unwilling to confront.

Here is what I finally wrote about what she feels:

How will Ruby feel when she finishes her rewrite? Ripped to pieces. But once it airs there will be an outpouring of love and concern and care for her from all the fans and strangers she had come to disdain, and this love will transform her; it will make her realize that she does in fact have the capacity to withstand the pain of losing Henry because of what she had with Henry all along.


Lisa said, “Yes!” which means that I finally went deep enough. The only reason I got there in my work is because I am a person who is alive, who is experiencing success and failure every day, and who had the presence of mind to recognize the parallel between my character and myself.

 It was a powerful moment of turning life into art.

And the tech failure? I’m already over it.


Sign up to join me and Lisa Cron for a free conversation about story.
January 7, 2016





How to See the Story

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

                                                             One of Mary Reaney's beautiful designs

Over Thanksgiving my kids were talking about the concept of a “lame superpower” – which I take to mean a superpower that would be cool to have, but also somewhat useless in comparison to actual superpowers such as being invisible or being able to time travel. One such lame superpower that was discussed, for example, was the ability to wake up with a smile in your face every day – before coffee.
This whole train of thought led me to think about a superpower that I believe many writers possess – and one which I believe we should all seek to strengthen. It’s the ability to see stories – to see the resonant moment in our own work, to see the core of the point we are trying to make, to see the idea that is strong and powerful and everlasting and not just the next shiny thing in front of us.
I think this would be a powerful asset, because sometimes the story is so maddeningly elusive. I have a client whom I shall call Joanne. I have been working with her one on one for a year – and she has been working hard.  She never misses a deadline, she estimates that she has written 500,000 words, she is willing to throw things out, to start over, to try again and again and again. And yet only this week did she really SEE her story.
Here is what she wrote about it:
 I feel excited about the story as if it were a new idea.  I can see how it plays out and, most importantly, I understand why I’m telling it.  I am embarrassed that it took so long to get here, but my sweet spouse’s reaction was pure delight: I found the key piece of the story!

I kept looking under the lamppost where the light was brighter.  I kept looking there until you suggested I wander over to the dark side of the street where more interesting things were happening if I’d stick around long enough to look and listen.

[This is Jennie and I didn’t want to include the next part but this writer made it a requirement of my using her words, so here it is…] I would not have gotten here without you.  It’s that clear.  You showed me what we missing, time and again, and the last piece helped click it all together. Thank you a million times over!
A year to see your story isn’t actually so bad. That’s actually somewhat fast. I have taken three times that long to find a story I was writing – and that was only after an editor led me to it by my nose. (In a post in the next weeks I’m going to write about what you DO once you have this aha moment – how you write forward, how you revise, how you use this information…. I call it The Golden Thread. Stay tuned for that!
The truth is that sometimes the words get in the way of the seeing, or the world, or our doubt, or a million other things. But like Joanne, when we see it, it’s so clear.
I am going on a trip this weekend with a friend who has just embarked on a grand adventure in her life. She is an interior designer who has a newly empty nest at home. She loves to travel, and loves to make spaces beautiful, and she has made a commitment to transform ten houses in ten cities in ten years. This is a commitment to how she wants to live in the world and how she wants to work – not from one home base, but from ten home bases. We are travelling to New Orleans, where the first of the ten projects is underway.
All I can see here is the story. It is like a neon sign flashing in the night! Who wouldn’t want to know how she chooses the cities, how she chooses the spaces, how she populates the spaces with lovely things in under a week  ( a one woman extreme makeover), how she meets people in the new place (the realtor, the woman at Restoration Hardware, the professor from the college down the road, the owner of the building…) what she does when she visits the new city, why she does it, and what lessons she will take to the next city on the list (which will be Rome)?
I see in stories and my dear friend simply does not… she is not chronicling the first of the ten, not writing blog posts about it, not taking pictures of the process, not taking notes. Part of me is jumping up and down and screaming, “Story, story, story!!!” I feel as thought my heart is about to burst.
But another part of me is realizing that my friend is not a writer. She tells her story in different ways, through furniture and art and fabric and rugs and even the glasses in which she serves drinks. A few weeks ago, she held a cocktail party for all the new friends she has met in her new place, and I have been to her parties so I know what they are like – warm, friendly, festive. I am certain that everyone who came enjoyed themselves and marveled at the lovely surroundings and felt the enveloping glow of a woman who likes nothing better than to host a party in a pretty space – even for people she has only just met.
I would tell the same story in a very different way – I mean, I can just SEE it: ten chapters, a through-line about making the world more beautiful and being at home in the world, a thread of how-tos about the stores visited, the money spent, the secret list of things that you can buy at Target that you don’t need to buy somewhere more expensive.
I have the power to see this story – but not the motivation to tell it.*
Having both the story and the motivation?? Maybe that isn’t such a lame superpower at all.
* Yes, yes I know that I could actually write my friend’s ten houses story on her behalf. But I have so many of my own stories to tell – I don’t need to borrow anyone else’s. And since you asked (ha!), my dog story is going just fine, thank you. I have a character who is writing a twist on Romeo & Juliet-- I basically need a play within a play within the story -- and so on my weekend outing, I will be reading some Shakespeare and thinking about the fabulous movie, Shakespeare in Love, and trying to tell myself that I can do this.