The Inadequate Writer

I would first like to offer my sincere congratulations to  Stephanie Feldman on the publication of her first novel The Angel of Losses. She spent more than a decade struggling to write and her third book has finally been accepted for publication. She recently wrote and excellent article about her experience as an unpublished author titled Failing in Art and in Life. (Please take the time to read this. It is a good essay.) I don’t quite see how she failed in life, but she failed in art for the duration of the time she was an unpublished writer, which she describes eloquently. She also describes how her life outside of writing, although not objectively a failure, felt like a failure. This part is not really given its due. She does convey that a normal life can feel like a disaster when your writing is unsuccessful. But she seems (at least to me) to be pulling the punches on the magnitude of this burden on the non-writing part of your life.

I have been an unpublished author four times longer than Mrs. Feldman. I also have a flourishing professional life, one that I long resented being born into. I have, over the years, developed an admittedly grudging sort of appreciation for the undeserved lottery win I was born with. I have a PhD in relation to my work and I have lectured in five countries. I have contributed to two translations, co-authored one book, contributed four book chapters, published two essays, one newspaper article and fifteen academic papers. I have saved lives most other professionals in my field could not have saved. I am developing my method to save more lives. Most of it is thanks to the easy trail that was prepared for me by my forebears. From a perspective similar to the one that sees Feldman a sort of success because she is married and a mother, I am seen as a success in the sense that I followed the footsteps that had little or nothing to do with my own accomplishments. But I have never published a novel and I have been living in denial of the toll it has been taking on my self-esteem for a long time. I live under the burden of being an unpublished writer, but one that is seen, by the casual observer, as a success. You might say that I am something of a Feldman-on-steroids. It sounds rather pretentious to say, at this point, that I see myself as a failure. Thus I am reduced to saying that I feel myself as being inadequate.

To give you a little context, I come from a long line of people who have achieved a great deal more and garnered much more respect than I have. I have, and always had, plenty of reasons to feel inferior and inadequate. I was never an overachiever. But at my age I have finally gained the perspective to realize that my feelings of inferiority and inadequacy are poorly balanced with my objective standing in the world.

That said, being a failed writer is a terrible burden on your soul. If your mother tells you to become a lawyer or a doctor or such, but your heart tells you to become a writing cowboy, be that writing cowboy and go off to the sunset. Being responsible will not free your heart. In fact, your failure to write will tarnish every other accomplishment you have made. Writing and publishing may seem like just one more thing you need to cross off your bucket list. If you are a writer at heart, it is not. It is the respirator on which your soul survives. I am no Einstein. I am no Hilary Koprowski or Albert Schweitzer. But I should not have to be ashamed of myself. Just as Bernhard did not have to be Glenn Gould, I should not have to be Koprowski or Schweitzer or even a published writer to be happy with myself. But no. I have to be.

Feldman writes that living through the black hole of failure will make you care less about what other people think about you. Half truth. Firstly, you are the “people” that matter. You do not care what “people” think about you only because you think about you much worse than they possibly can. Secondly, you do care about what people think about you, just not your boss at your day job. Readers, reviewers, agents and publishers can still break your soul. She knows this of course. She writes with a tone of transience “Well, there’s a happy ending to my story. That third novel became a book. Let’s take a moment to enjoy that.”

Yes, let’s. Just like how I briefly enjoyed the publication of my non-fiction works. Like I briefly enjoyed all the other accomplishments along the way. But the nagging feeling of incompetence, inadequacy, insufficiency, call it what you will, just keeps chipping away at the soul of a miserable failure.

On the brighter side, misery, however vain or inconsequential, is good for the writer. Unhappiness breeds stories. Sadness begets humor. Despair nurtures poetry. Perhaps my prolonged failure was the necessary incubation time for my books to come. I like to think that way anyhow.

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