“I have failed, and will never succeed,” he thought as a sense of relief began to glow inside him. “Nobody will ever really read anything I write, so I’m done writing.” Noah had been writing for over 30 years, but as he hiked through the leafless winterized scrub oak in the hills near his home, he realized it was over.
It had all begun with poetry when he was a high school freshman. He’d gotten a D in that class, and it had been a well earned D. He hadn’t done his homework; he hadn’t studied for a single test, and after one chapter of A Separate Peace he had realized that the novel assigned to the class by Mrs. Hollister simply wasn’t for him, and he wouldn’t be reading it. Instead, he read lots of poetry in his free time, along with history books and novels by writers ranging from Louis L’Amour to Henry James. As a reader, he had always been a ravenous omnivore, devouring everything except what was assigned to him by his teachers.
He wrote a poem for that English class, a comic, self-deprecating poem. As his dog, a friendly German shepherd, sniffed a matted patch of rust-brown leaves in the middle of the trail, Noah tried to remember the words of the poem, but they wouldn’t come. He also tried to remember why he had read it to the class. Do freshman English teachers in mediocre suburban high schools make their students write poems and read them to the class? It was just cruel enough to be plausible. He knew that he had read one, although now the only word he could remember from it was, “beast,” maybe, “smelly beast.”
The poem had gone over surprisingly well. In fact, an attractive Italian exchange student with big brown eyes of astounding softness and depth had asked, in her charming accent, if she could have a copy of it. He gave her a copy, his only copy, on the spot. He now suspected that she must have liked him, but in the moment he’d thought, “Huh, I guess this poem is pretty good.” He hadn’t realized it at the time, but this poem was to be the greatest triumph of his literary career. Attractive Italian girls with bottomless brown eyes hadn’t asked him for a copy of anything he had written since.
He continued writing throughout high school. He wrote lots of poetry, long journal entries, short stories, and comic sketches. He performed some of his sketches with friends in his drama classes. During his junior year, a girl with Down syndrome asked him to write a scene for her (his first and only commission) and after she corrected the spelling errors in his manuscript, she had performed it to polite applause. He’d taken a creative writing class his senior year, and submitted a story and a poem to the school’s literary magazine. The story had been rejected, but the poem, another work of supposedly comic self-deprecation, had been published and maybe read by a half dozen of his classmates.
In college he began his first novel, but he abandoned it after fifty pages. Then he started a second novel, but abandoned it even quicker. In fact, the past two decades of his life were a junkyard of abandoned books. He submitted stories to his college literary journal, and they were all rejected, but as a sort of cosmic consolation prize he got some poetry in. Twenty five years later thoughts of his five page T.S. Eliot ripoff still had the power to inflict a throb of shame.
He wrote one book per year while he was in law school, which may help explain why he was in “the top 75th percentile” of his graduating class (the politest way to describe the fact that he had narrowly missed graduating in the bottom quarter). The first of these books had been a 325 page comic novel set in a fictional high school exactly like the one he had attended; the only difference was its name. The school was populated with the friends of his teenage years wearing only the thinnest of disguises. The love interest, an intelligent, amusing, beautiful blond who played tennis and the cello and was slightly taller than the protagonist, was clearly Noah’s high school girlfriend with added layers of selfishness and whimsicality. It was a romantic comedy about a young man who falls for the daughter of a retired CIA agent who had been responsible for every right wing coup in Latin America through the sixties and seventies. The father uses his dirty tricks to get his daughter to drop the hero, but when she starts to date someone even worse, father and hero join forces to get rid of her new boyfriend.
Noah knew that this novel, The Colonel’s Daughter, wasn’t great, but he was proud of it. He thought the story idea was a good one, and out of the book’s thirty chapters at least two worked. He asked friends and family to read it, but when he pressed them for their opinions later, the response was a lot eye shifting and suspiciously vague praise. Clearly, nobody had made it all the way to page 325 of The Colonel’s Daughter. Since he hadn’t had any illusions about the quality of the novel, Noah wasn’t upset by this.
He went to law school at U.C. Hastings, an institution located in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. It was a great neighborhood to get a cheap and delicious banh mi sandwich, buy a used book in a foreign language, or be stabbed while trying to sell heroin. As he walked to school on his first day, Noah saw a man squatting on the sidewalk, clearly trying to empty his bowels while crowds of people passed by. The homeless man was placidly reading the newspaper like some dad in a nostalgic film about a happy family in the fifties. The neighborhood was a rich source of material, so Noah’s second novel was about a law student who drops out of school to avoid an awkward conversation with his wife and then becomes homeless in the Tenderloin. It only took a couple months to pound out the 135 page first draft of a novella that wouldn’t ever have a title, or any readers. Noah didn’t bother showing this one to friends and family because he knew it was bad.
His third novel was about a young man from a well-to-do family in San Francisco who is forced to attend a terrible college in rural Wyoming. The book was nothing but stitched together chunks of three abandoned novels, but despite the Frankenstein origins, Noah was proud of the result. Evelyn Waugh had used similar methods to put A Handful of Dust together, and Raymond Chandler had stitched his way to two of the greatest crime novels of all time. Again, Noah shared his work with friends and family, and again received a lot of evasion. But for the first time he actually believed in something he had written, and he tried to get it published.
The attempt at getting it published consisted of purchasing a copy of The Writer’s Market, combing it’s pages for likely agents and publishers, and then sending them whatever piece of the book they asked for, along with a self addressed stamped envelope they could use to send a rejection in reply. Over the next few months, the mail in Noah’s mailbox, which until then had been nothing but bills, junk, and copies of The New Yorker that would likely never be read, was spiced up with a liberal dash of self addressed stamped envelopes bearing bad news.
Next he wrote a mystery set in a small town in the Utah desert, then a comedy about a young man who gets a job at a bogus diet pill company, then a children’s novel called Quoth the Sandpiper about a small bird who solves crimes, then a crime novel set in Mexico, then a children’s novel about a couple girls who save their dad from a witch, and finally a novel called The Unpublishables, about a man living in a world populated almost entirely by unpublished novelists. Finally, he spent a year writing short science fiction stories with a philosophical bent, despite the fact that his knowledge of both science and philosophy was as shallow as his success as a writer.
A strange thing happens with failure and rejection. At first, each rejection is a slap. It hurts. But over time individual rejections lose their sting. The sharp occasional stabs dissolve into a pervasive and ever present dull gray numbness. Throbs of disappointment are lost in a general ache. Every single one of the forty-two rejections he had received for his first novel had been painful, but each time he had received an emailed “nope” for his more recent science fiction stories, he hadn’t felt a thing.
Now, in one burst of thought, Noah accepted his failure, and immediately felt better. The ache simply disappeared. He was surprised by this, but as he considered the matter further, he realized that he shouldn’t be. He’d always found a sort of joy in admitting that he was wrong about something and giving up a position that had become untenable. Sometimes, when he argued with people he would see them dig their heels in as they realized they were wrong, fortifying their weak arguments, even self-evidently wrong arguments, with anger and bombast. But he liked being proven wrong because it meant that he could stop arguing. It meant he had learned something.
When people change their views on important issues they are frequently lambasted as back-peddlers and wafflers, and no doubt many changes of opinion are based on nothing but political expedience. But Noah believed that waffling should be seen, in general, as a good thing. If you no longer have the ability to change your opinion, then your mind has narrowed to complete closure. You have ceased to be a reasoning being and have devolved into a robot. To change your mind is the essence of being human.
There is a pain in holding a position in which you have lost faith, and letting go of the position relieves you of the pain. The worst part is the moment right before you let go of your mistake, and the best is the moment after. He had just let go of an enormous mistake that had been dragging him down for three decades, and he felt wonderful.
As he thought about this, the trail led him out of the thicket of winter-dead scrub oak and into a meadow strewn with large limestone boulders where the green grass of spring was just begging to poke through the matted yellow grass of winter. On his right he could see his hometown spread out in the valley below. It hummed quietly. On his left he saw the mountain steeply sloping up towards the sky. At that moment, a gray blanket of cloud slipped from the sun and in an instant the meadow was flooded with warmth and a light that made the limestone gleam.
Noah couldn’t help but laugh (he’d always been a quick laugh) at the corny symbolism. It was the sort of thing that only a terrible writer would have committed to the page. But he really had stepped out of the forest, and the meadow really had been flooded by warm light, in the moment he had finally let go of the idea that he was a writer.
He was filled with a new energy and began to jog. He had to get home quickly. The hike had given him an idea for a story, and he needed to get it on paper while it was fresh in his mind.