This is going to be mortifyingly embarrassing but I may as well tell you about it. When I was a teenager, I loved the Newhart show. Not The Bob Newhart Show where he was shrink in Chicago married to Suzanne Pleshette but the later one in which Bob had a different wife and lived in Vermont. You may remember that show, a not-terribly funny precursor to Fawlty Towers, in which Bob ran an inn and there were the three local brothers named Larry, Daryl and Daryl.
I loved this show because of Bob’s second career, his real career. He was a successful author of “how-to” books. This struck me as the perfect ambition. To sit in a cozy study and churn out books that were effortless to write. Not to strive for Pulitzers or National Book Awards but just to crank out shelves full of books on animal husbandry, basket weaving, and transmission repair. Real books nonetheless, arrayed on shelves filled with one’s name over and over on the spines.
The first book I ever had published was called Hello World: a life in ham radio. It was inspired by a collection of special postcards I found at a flea market, cards designed by amateur radio operators to confirm the virtual meetings they had on the air. I was intrigued by the stories behind these cards and by the community of quirky men who wrote them and kept this technology alive long after its sell by date.
But I wrote this book primarily because someone was interested in publishing it. I really, really wanted to have a book with my name on the cover. Even a book about ham radio. Precisely the sort of book Bob might have written. The book did well, was written about in the NY Times, and snapped up by every ham’s hipster grandchildren.
Less than a year later, the same publisher brought out my second book, Everyday Matters, an illustrated memoir of my first wife’s crippling accident and how it inspired me to start drawing.
Initially, I had a lot of ambivalence about the publication of this second book. I wasn’t sure this story was legitimately mine to tell. It seemed that Patti should be the one to write such a book. I also felt fraudulent writing a book about art making — I wan’t an artist or an illustrator. And where would this book take me? How would it lead to Bob’s study in the woods?
But nonetheless, with two books under my belt, I felt ready to get a literary agent and step up my efforts. My first publisher was a small, niche publisher of arty books. What I really wanted was a major publisher that was a household name and it seemed like a real agent could get me in more august company. Not to mention getting me a big fat advance I could live off and just write books.
I had a lot of ambition but no ideas for my third book. Then, one weekend, I went back to the flea market and found a trove of educational film strips.They stirred memories long forgotten, of sitting in boring elementary school classrooms, listening to the clickety-click of the advancing strip in a semi-darkened room. It was a memory I was sure other people had too. I thought I could surely turn those film strips into another richly illustrated bestseller, one that a major publisher would jump at.
My new agent dutifully found me a new publisher, a minor division of a major house, who handed me a five-figure advance to write the book. I began researching the dusty history of educational policy. I squeezed and squeezed those filmstrips until every drop of drama and snarky comedy was extracted. It was tedious but essential if it was to carve out my place in the bookstore. It was just the sort of work I’m sure Bob had to do all the time. One day I would become a beloved author with a long series of books on quaint and obsolete technology. It seemed like a niche I could define and dominate.
When the book came out, I achieved another of my teenage dreams: I was interviewed on CNN. I was on the way! Soon I could quit advertising and get that inn and a bunch of cardigans.
But that book wasn’t really my book. it was a jokey, intellectually suspect effort that I would never buy a copy of myself. It was a ploy, an illusion that I conjured up to shortcut my way to my puny ambition.
And it turned out that I hadn’t fooled anyone.
My third book became the first book I wrote that was remaindered. That meant the publisher gave up on it, stopped printing it, and sold the remaining copies at pennies on the dollar on the Sales table at Barnes & Noble.
It was a humiliating turn of events. Not only had I prostituted myself to get my name on the book’s cover, making something I didn’t believe in just because of some delusion about what I wanted — but the world hadn’t even bought it. I hadn’t been true to myself at all and the results stunk to high heaven.
Failure is a great teacher. We avoid it, we flee it, we dread it, but it shows us exactly who we are. We may have taken a wrong turn along the way, may be pursuing a misguided fantasy, but when failure brings us up short, we have to face this abrupt and irrefutable sign that it’s time to think again.
It’s not the end of the road. Failure happens when we are not quite there yet. But it’s not proof that we shouldn’t keep trying.
When I look at the failure of my book, I see a life-changing lesson. My failure was due to being inauthentic. To working hard at a lazy goal. Looking for a short cut to some trapping of success that wouldn’t have made me happy because it wasn’t true to me.
Not long afterwards, I suffered another humiliation. For the first time in my life, I was fired from my job. It was a big job, Chief Creative Officer of a successful ad agency. It was a job I wanted because I wanted to feel important, a “Chief-something”.
The fact that the agency was never my cup of tea didn’t dissuade me. The fact that I felt like a miserable fraud every day I knotted on my Hermes tie didn’t stop me. The fact that the job required me to do everything but the things I was best at, writing and coming up with ideas, didn’t occur to me. I wanted to be a big shot. Even though every day I felt ill, exhausted, and afraid.
And then it was all over. I was told that after three years of acting the part, the charade was finished, I was done and there was the door I was embarrassed but then, enormously relieved. I could be try to find me again.
A few days later, I sat in in a coffee shop with no idea what to do. Of course, it was raining and hard. And then, like a scene from a cheesy movie, my agent called to say that a big publisher had been in touch. They wanted to give me a six-figure advance for the paperback rights to Everyday Matters and to write another book, any book I wanted, so long as it felt as wonderfully real as that book did. I had permission to write whatever I wanted.
I hung up, terrified. Of getting what I’d always wanted. And of blowing my last chance. Who was I to take this on? I’d been remaindered, fired, shown that my dreams were just fantasies. What if I made another mistake?
I couldn’t do this. I had nothing to say.
The initial consequences of my failures were a deep sense of powerlessness and confusion. But there’s real power in having nothing to lose. Rather than trying to win at a game I’d never really wanted to play, I could look honestly at my mistakes and take a fresh path.
When I started to draw, I made so many mistakes. But I kept pushing on until slowly my line grew more confident, more expressive of what I wanted to create. My skills were built on a huge pile of failures, crumpled pages and pencil stubs. Without them, I would never have progressed. I learned that the biggest impediment wasn’t making mistakes, it was being afraid to make them. By blundering ahead, taking risks, going into new territories, punching above my weight class, I had breakthroughs
I decided to write a book about living with that fear and use it to help people to overcome their obstacles. People need to be given permission to do new things, to be vulnerable, to blunder and stumble ahead without fatal fear of the consequences. We all screw up. We all fall down. It’s okay if we are making an honest effort to grow.
The book I wrote was called The Creative License: giving yourself permission to be the artist you truly are. I wrote the book for me, a self-help book I’d never found in a bookstore but which I needed to read — and badly. I needed someone to tell me it was okay to fail, that I’d get past it, that I could be good so long as I let myself keep trying. It was a how-to book that showed me how to be. ( I hope Bob would have liked it too).
I couldn’t have written The Creative License if If I hadn’t lost the job title that I wasn’t entitled to. If I hadn’t written that other inauthentic book that showed me who I wasn’t — so I could find out who I was.
My mistakes have made me who I am. I hope you can learn from them. And from your own.