When my niece was about eighteen months old and starting to learn to do things on her own, her mother, my sister, began framing their everyday outings as adventures. A trip to Target was an adventure, as was a visit to a friend’s house or a short walk to the neighborhood park to play on the swings. At that age, my niece took everything in, repeating, as toddlers do, whatever the adults around her said. “We’re going on an adventure!” she’d crow from her car seat. Of course, not every adventure went smoothly and while she was learning new skills she made mistakes, like we all do even when those skills seem like old hat. With patience, however, her mother and grandparents encouraged her to pick herself up, dust herself off, and take another crack at dressing herself, piling up books, or putting together a puzzle. It wasn’t long before my niece was repeating, “Almost! Try again!”
A lot can be said for failure. Like most successful writers, John McNally knows what it means to fail and to have to try again. A few years ago, he wrote a Facebook post chronicling his major professional failures as a writer—not his rejected stories or the stories he never finished, but the books that languished in publishing purgatory or were flat-out refused by agents and publishers. The response from his Facebook friends was overwhelming: other writers thanked him for his frankness and shared his post along with their own lists of failures. That post became The Promise of Failure, a slim volume in which McNally explores what it means to fail, and what it means to succeed in a career that doesn’t have a set professional trajectory and doesn’t promise much—if any—financial reward.
Part memoir, part craft book, The Promise of Failure rests on the premise that every writer will fail; what matters is how each writer chooses to build on those failures without surrendering the craft. For McNally, success is in part about letting enough time pass so that his failed ideas can marinate in his subconscious mind, and about writing in the meantime so that he can remain open to the possibility of, in fact, succeeding. “You never know,” he writes, “when an idea in passing, even one where you’re merely trying to make a buck, will change the course of your life.” While it ruminates on failures, The Promise of Failure is, on balance, about charting an individual course that lets you, as Ray Bradbury once said, “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”
This book is full of hard-hitting advice a writer could scribble out on a Post-it and slap above their writing desk for inspiration. “Don’t be the person who never finishes anything,” he says. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block just as there’s no such thing as gym block,” he intones. “Either you go to the gym or you don’t.” For McNally there is no “almost.” There is only “try again.”
McNally’s book is not an instruction manual; it’s a guidebook for interrogating your own motives to write, finding your own pain points, and for measuring your progress against your personal expectations, rather than the perfectly curated successes of your social media connections. “Learn what your own strengths and weaknesses are,” he writes, which is good advice not only for writing but for every endeavor you might ever undertake.
I don’t get to see my niece very often, but the last time we were together she learned how to walk on the balance beam in a playground near her house. I climbed onto the beam in front of her, my own fear of falling flooding through my veins. What if I fell? What if she fell? We held hands, and held the hands of her mother and grandmother, and crossed the beam one step at a time. What matters, John McNally says, is not how we fail but rather how we process that failure, how we cope, and how we move forward from or with it. In the end, The Promise of Failure is about learning to see the writing life as an adventure and learning how to build your own wings so you can try again.
Hillary Moses Mohaupt is a listmaker: she’s a writer, social media editor, museum enthusiast, francophile, pie-baker, and misplaced Midwesterner in the Mid-Atlantic. She’s the social media editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and she’s one half of the Screen Sirens, a podcast about women and social justice in classic Hollywood films. Follow her on Twitter at @_greyseasky_