The Promise of Failure

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 15 Jun 2018

Member Reviews

Why write? Especially when, in most cases, the writer faces rejection of one sort or another. This is the question John McNally raises in The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding (University of Iowa Press, 2018). Although McNally is addressing writers and would-be writers (of whom I am decidedly not one), his thoughts on failure can sometimes be generalized.

So, again, why write? “If no one out there cares if you put down your pen right now and never pick it up again, why keep doing this thing that you’re doing?” One reason is that “it’s the only thing [you’re] even remotely good at.” 

So you keep writing and “putting [your] work out there,” even though you “ultimately have no control over whether something gets published or doesn’t…. It’s like letting go of a helium-filled balloon and hoping it touches an airplane. Once you let go of the string, it’s no longer in your control.” What a wonderful image for the disjunction between process and outcome. Once you hit the buy or sell button…. No, I don’t want to mash McNally’s language by forcing an analogy.

When, in the face of failure, should you just pack it in and quit doing what you’re doing? McNally says that he has “always been of the belief that as long as you’re not hurting anyone, it’s foolish not to pursue the thing you want to pursue, even if you pursue it badly.” Here it’s more difficult to analogize to trading. The writer piles up rejection slips; the trader piles up losses. Losses may not be psychologically more difficult to handle than rejection slips, but they do have a way of eroding any semblance of well-being. The losing trader either has to find some way to be profitable (and many highly successful traders have clawed their way back from nothingness) or should find something else to pursue.

But if you’re going to pursue trading, here’s McNally’s advice (and in this case it’s easy to analogize): “I measure my goals not by a typed page, not by a paragraph, not by a sentence. But by a word. One word. Because I know well enough now that one word will lead me to the next word and that this is how you get to where you’re going.”
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More memoir than a writing guide, McNally has a lot of interesting things to say about the writing life. At times, the introspection dips too far toward navel-gazing, but there are gems about the revision process, depression, social media, and depth of story. 

The title topic, failure, is covered in-depth and McNally returns to it again and again. There is some wisdom to be found in how to accept failure and rejection as a part of life, but there are some mixed messages as well. He discusses the dangers of relying on external validation as a measure of success but then focuses only on whether a traditional publisher accepts his manuscript as a yardstick by which to decide whether a story is good or not. His description of stories languishing in a drawer because they were never accepted made me sad. Although trad publishing is the "one true way" for many people, we live in a world where we can directly access readers more and more. It seems silly to say "don't rely on external feedback for validation" on one hand, but also "ship it off to gatekeepers and then trust that they will tell you whether it is good or not" on the other.

Overall, an interesting read, but only if you aren't expecting concrete advice on the writing process. This is more of a "see what you can glean from my life experiences" kind of book than an instruction manual.
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The Promise of Failure was a very different book than I was expecting. It was much more memoir than advice. Once I got into the memoir rhythm, I really enjoyed John McNally's thoughts on failure, finding your passion, and redefining success. This book is definitely worth reading; if you are open to a healthy dose of reality about failure as part of writing, you will get a lot out of it.
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“The Promise of Failure” authored by John McNally is an unexpected literary surprise for writers and anyone who loves the written word! This is not a typical “how-to” writing guide for authors; instead, McNally shared his true story of trial and error—the hard work towards success. This involved the bulk of his writing being rejected by commercial publishers. Despite his graduation from the Iowa Writers Workshop (1989) and teaching college level writing courses; his lucky break occurred with a third place win in the Playboy Fiction Contest (1988) and success of his novel, “The Book of Ralph” (2004).

When he was 13 years old, McNally diligently typed his first novel of old time film comedians. He wrote to Universal Studios, MGM, and major publishing houses for any advice they might offer. Soon, his parent’s mailbox was filled with studio and publisher responses. He didn’t have the money for the fees charged, he did receive an autographed photo of Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz). Though it was “roundly rejected,” Harmony Books asked to see his novel after completion.   
As a serious writer, McNally needed a first rate education. After he accepted a low wage adjunct teaching position at a college in Colorado, moving there from Chicago—getting established was very difficult. After only one semester, the adjunct contracts were not renewed. McNally was forced to move back to Illinois and stay in his father’s camping trailer—where he only wrote 30 pages of unusable material during this depressing time period. A good friend, author and scholar Eric G. Wilson believes that great art can be created during periods of melancholia, though one must remain strong in the middle and endure “murkiness and confusion”. The “unrelenting darkness” that led to the fates of the famous writers: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf must be avoided at all costs; self-care should always be a high priority. McNally informs readers that he doesn’t write fiction for therapy. There is a probability that the reader will feel sorry or embarrassed for an author that writes for the purpose of self-healing.  
Although McNally had little use for revising or re-working failed novels, he noted that a novel that failed sell in past times, could be accepted for future publication. Pat Conroy (1945-2016) instructed his students that “The good work is connected to the bad work” (1987). Indeed, in writing his short stories McNally often felt like Dr. Frankenstein taking parts from one story and connecting the parts with another. We can work tirelessly on a story or novel-- revising these works can be like “chasing a mirage”. We may never get it right, or gain the distance or understanding to grasp its meaning-- we should let it go. In his 28 year teaching career, McNally has read thousands of student fiction submissions. Many have had no desire to become writers, the ones who did become successful authors, shared an “emotional honesty” an interest in feedback, a “resilience” and “humility” in a likelihood of exposure.

 One of the best quotes in the book was by Paddy Chayefsky: “Stop thinking of writing as an art. It is work. If you’re an artist, whatever you do is going to be art. If you’re not an artist, at least you can do a good days work.” During the time he wrote The Book of Ralph, McNally’s second marriage was falling apart. Writing saved his life, preventing him from acting on “darker impulses”. McNally’s stories and advice were written a conversational style and format, there were no long drawn out essays of literary criticism. The ebb and flow of this book was really superb. One of McNally’s best stories that celebrated his friend Christine was saved for the closing. As a book reviewer, author’s who read their reviews and not hesitate to click “Helpful” or click ones they “Like” are most appreciated! **With gratitude and thanks to the University of Iowa Press via NetGalley for the DDC for the purpose of review.
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One thing is to involve yourself emotionally in a book (a thing that I'ce never read in a writing-book - compelling nevertheless) and another to be too involved. I believe this book mixed the failure part of the writer's life with his personal life maybe a notch too far. This was more a memoir, at least to me than a "get your sh_t together after you fail".
ps: the cover is awesome.
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I feel like I'm writing some sort of ironic review. I don't think you can truly 'fail' if you're writing, but I couldn't connect with this book. I felt like this was more of a long list of blog posts. Maybe the formatting in my arc was incomplete, but there were no chapter or topic headings. I was hoping for more of a reflective discussion of the topics he writes about (deaths, rejection, social media, the role of a writer, etc ) but it all felt a bit too breezy for my tastes.
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I find it odd that this book is on netgalley when the author very near the beginning explicitly states that he avoids reader reviews of amazon and goodreads... 'maybe other writers can shrug off dumb reader comments'. I know what he is trying to say - don't take other peoples comments to heart but did he need to say it like that. Hmmm. 

I also found that this book didn't work well on my Kindle - the layout didn't flow and was broken and there were also numerous spelling and grammatical mistakes which I hope is sorted before it is available to all.

In terms of actual content I really enjoyed his writing when he was describing the harrowing story of his friend Christine however I'm not sure it added a lot to the book.  McNally also used examples of other writers who had suffered and counted as 'failures' even though to the reader they are masterpieces however he often repeated himself and I found myself skim reading.

It wasn't a gripping page turner but it was fairly interesting so I would recommend this book to his fans as there are some interesting insights into his writing however I won't be re-reading.

Thank you to netgalley for providing me the chance to read this in advance in return for an honest review.
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The Promise of Failure started interestingly enough. As promised, the author talks about his personal failures as far as  writing and publishing is concerned. However, I strongly felt at times that there was too much personal information on this book that didn't have a lot to do with the writing. I can understand how your personal life affects writing, but I do not need to know all the details. In this way, it felt like the book slipped away from its initial promise. There were, however, moments of humor and some optimistic highlights. In its entirety, however, The Promise of Failure was a lot more pessimistic than one would expect from its description.
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I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first started reading The Promise of Failure. Any advice as to how to turn negative feedback into positive feedback was likely my main reason for choosing this book. What I didn’t quite expect was the melancholy tone that is laced throughout the entire book.
John McNally discusses at length his failures as a writer (i.e. how many manuscripts have been left unpublished or were rejected), in his personal life (failed marriages),  in teaching writing, and just plain awful moments that he’s gone through. He finishes the book with a story about his friend Christine who recently died of cancer.
He’s had a challenging life, and suffers from depression. He talked at length about that, and how he overcame some obstacles. McNally also brought many examples of other writers who have suffered similarly and the major works that came out of a period of failure for them.
The text is written in a conversational style.
Honestly, this was a depressing read.  The first chapter intrigued me and then the rest just left me feeling drained. I ended up plowing the rest of the way through it as I really didn’t feel like being depressed each time I picked it up to read. I am an optimist and always try to find the silver lining (which is how I try to approach rejection or editing in my own work). I’m not sure where the silver lining can be found in the text of this book, other than the point of the book was clear: you will fail as a writer but it’s your choice what you do with that failure.
I received an advanced ebook copy from the publisher through NetGalley. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.
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