Back in 2014, I was lucky enough to hear John McNally deliver a craft talk called “The Shame, the Necessity, the Discouragement and the Freedom: Rejection, Failure and the Bigger Picture,” while attending a residency at Pacific University. What wowed me about John’s talk that day was his ability to be hopeful, vulnerable, honest, and funny, characteristics that are on full display in his new book, The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding (University of Iowa Press), in which a version of the talk I heard comprises the first essay, “Rejection, Failure, and the Bigger Picture: A Personal History.”
The Promise of Failure is essentially a memoir of the writing life, though to categorize it as such almost does it a disservice. It’s also a craft book (though don’t expect much by way of advice on how to structure a plot or develop full characters; I recommend John’s Vivid and Continuous if you’re looking for that sort of thing). Being difficult to categorize is one of John’s strong suits, and The Promise of Failure is, at turns, poignant, irreverent, astute, and thoughtful. This is a book for writers, sure, but “failure” is something we’ve all tasted, many times in our lives, in many forms, and John covers some of those failures too, always bringing it back to writing. (Try to separate life from art; you can’t.)
“In this profession, failure isn’t just a fact of life; it’s a necessary part of the process.”
Throughout this slim volume, John’s voice is relatable, and it is refreshing to hear an accomplished, intelligent author speak candidly about his struggles with his chosen craft. It’s no secret that writing (and the subsequent act of publishing) is tough business. We, as writers, hear that all the time; some of us have it tattooed on our hearts. But it’s something else entirely to be allowed into the private realm of a successful author’s failures. There’s a very real sense of John sharing his experiences so that the rest of us, toiling away in (near) obscurity, won’t feel so alone. Failure, like success, is a process—a never ending one—and John provides insight into how to ride the waves as they inevitably ebb and flow.
Throughout the book, John quotes from other writers who have written about failure, among them Richard Russo, Richard Yates, Stephen King, adding depth to his own thoughts, and widening the conversation around this tender subject. (He quotes fewer women authors on the subject, which got me wondering, are female authors less likely to speak of their literary failures for fear of being perceived as whiny?)
For many years following the craft talk John delivered at Pacific, I had written on my computer a quote from that talk: “Did you conquer the hours by writing?” I still use that question to guide me when the going gets tough.
Despite the heavy subject matter, the tone of The Promise of Failure is light. (Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its sad moments, because it does.) This is a genuine exploration of what it means to fail, and what it means to succeed. As John says, “The lines between the two sometimes blur. The history of literature… is full of projects that didn’t succeed for one reason or another but ultimately led to a more successful version of the book at a later date.” Those words are inspiring, and so is the rest of The Promise of Failure.