An elderly neighbor died. Soon after, large garbage bags appeared outside her home. Her family must have had the arduous task of cleaning out her possessions. It’s hard enough to deal with the loss of a loved one. Having to sort through everything from personal items to files of paperwork only adds to the misery. The memory of that heap of garbage bags made me resolve to begin a decluttering project. I’d start with my writing files.
Gloom descended as I sorted through yellowed writing folders with page after page of no-thank-you letters. I tossed out a bulging folder with rejection slips for a story about a troubled twelve-year-old boy who must deal with guilt and try to regain trust. That was followed by a whimsical early chapter book series. Still more yellowed file folders hit the recycling bin. I told myself I wasn’t giving up on the stories; only the rejections. Still, I couldn’t help but feel the defeating weight of all the years of effort without seeing the books in print. A person analyzes how they could have better spent their time.
Shoulders slumped, I opened a file with J. K. Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement address. The author of the Harry Potter books is known for her quote, “It’s impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
I nodded to myself, and then read her address in which she shared her experience with failure. Just seven years after graduating from college, she had failed on an epic scale. “An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded,” she said, “and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”
Rowling continued to describe that failure, for her, meant a stripping away of the inessential. She stopped pretending to be someone other than an imaginative writer and poured herself into that role, finishing the only work that mattered to her. Had she succeeded at something else previously, she might never have finished the Harry Potter books. Failure helped her discover that she had a strong will, more discipline than she had suspected, and friends she valued. She emerged stronger and wiser. She said, “You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”
I continued sorting through file folders until the recycling container overflowed. Thinking I could add one more folder, I pulled out the file for the story I started over 30 years ago. I’d been inspired by a National Geographic article from 1965 describing how, after a windstorm on Canada’s Sable Island, a resident uncovered the skeleton of a young man who may have starved to death. Along with the body, he found some old British coins dated 1760, half a dozen lead musket balls, and a shoe buckle. And my imagination was off!
This past fall, I revised the story one more time and sent it off to HenschelHaus Books. Kira Henschel wrote me back that she’d be delighted to publish it. Last week I approved the final cover art for the story I’ve reworked and imagined all these many years. This spring, I’ll be able to see evidence of my years of effort as I page through Stranded on Castaway Island.
Rowling told the Harvard graduates, “We have the power to imagine better.”
I carry my heavy recycling container out to the bin and dump it. Failure is and will always be a part of our lives. But along with failure, we carry the power for success. Believe in yourselves, dear friends, and never, ever give up.