Saturday, September 28, 2013

I Dreamed and Failed... And It Changed My Life

I still remember the phone call. I took it on our portable phone, back when everyone still had landlines. The literary agent said that he’d read my manuscript and loved it. He was convinced my book was going to sell. And this wasn’t just any agent, either. He’d represented a number of best-selling authours. As we hung up, he praised my writing and promised that he’d be in touch.

I remember going to the balcony and weeping, unabashedly. The twelve years of hard work, years that had produced three complete novels and two unfinished pieces, had finally paid off. I was thirty-one years old, not young, but about the age when new authours begin to have success. I fully understood that most novelists weren’t rich, and that it took years to build an audience, but none of that fazed me. For the moment, I was overwhelmed with gratitude – for the people who had supported me and helped me, for a life passion that had taught me so much and would teach me more, and for realizing a dream. A dream I hadn’t expected to achieve.

The agent called me a few weeks later. We chatted about future projects. He emailed me a few more times and then… stopped. Stopped calling. Stopped emailing me. I tried to contact him, but he refused to take my calls. People in the industry told me that this was part of the business, and that it happened sometimes when an agent had second thoughts.

I tried to push the disappointment aside, but I didn’t know how to do that. For the past decade, I’d studiously avoided a career in anything except a nomadic existence in youth work, which meant my jobs, while rewarding, paid me as though I were still in college. I became so discouraged that I couldn’t bring myself to put my novel back on the market, couldn’t bring myself to write another one. I spent the next two years writing a spiritual memoir, but I never ended up sending it out or seeing if anyone was interested in publishing it. One crushed dream was enough.

Five years ago I decided it was time to try again. Only this time I would write in a genre that, when done well, had always been my favourite. My past work had been thriller novels, but a fantasy novel would allow me to speculate on my favourite subjects – theology and philosophy, sociology and family dynamics and politics – in a broad, sweeping manner. I could draw on my favourite Edgar Rice Burroughs novels as a child, my youthful love for adventure. I could pour my life’s worth of reading and experience and work into something familiar, yet something new. Unlike a thriller, a novel like this would take years to complete. I was ready. I was no longer the young writer on the verge of success. I had become just another dreamer, another wanna-be with decreasing chances of ever seeing my dream become reality.

Two years flashed by. Even with the work of some brilliant alpha readers, I knew that my book wasn’t ready. Not yet. I asked my wife if I could work part-time, focus on my writing. I could do this, I told her. I can get there. She believed in me, and for two years, I spent six to seven hours a day hammering away at every Starbucks in the city. The work got better, but was it good enough? I wasn’t sure.

Along the way, I battled despair and a deepening sense of guilt. We weren’t making any money, thanks to me, and the debts were piling up. Every week I looked at the calendar and felt myself age just a little bit more. This past year I finally accepted that we could not afford to live that way. I went back to work. I still wrote, every morning, but there was a sense that this great dream I’d held for so long might be over. Every writer is neurotic, but sitting down to the blank screen had become more difficult, and after the positivity of my younger years, it was like walking uphill.

It still feels that way. That is nature of a dream, the core of being a dreamer. If it doesn’t feel impossible, at least sometimes, then it’s not a dream.

This past month I finally finished the manuscript, five years to the week of when I started it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sell it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to call myself a novelist or an author. I don’t know if I’ll ever realize my dream. What I do know is that I’ve reaped great reward from my failures. I’ve been encouraged, time and again, by friends choosing to walk the journey with me. I’ve found a true partner – a love for the ages – in my wife, who has shared my dream with me, given everything she could possibly give to make it a reality. And I’ve learned the benefit of perseverance, the hard lessons forged only in the face of bitter disappointment. They have changed and shaped my character in unexpected ways, helped me to become more empathetic, helped widen my worldview regarding the challenges different people face.

These are not small things. And yet, there are days I feel small. That I sacrificed my life for a one I could not achieve. For as much as dreams teach us, they still cost. Those wounds eventually heal and become scars, but you never forget. For many, this is a reason NOT to pursue your life’s passion. What if you never make it? What if all you ever experience is rejection? Why put yourself through the agony of striving for something you may never achieve?

All I can tell you is that while hope casts long shadows, under its wings we often find unexpected growth. Unexpected joy. Today may be difficult, but dreams give us something that nothing else can: they give us tomorrow. They give us a vision of change – of ourselves and our world – that nothing else can match. Sure, they give us scars. And some days it is all we can do to lift our head and scream at the heavens, at the injustice of it all. But what they teach us is more important than the small aches they leave in their wake.

When I look back at the journey now, my dream feels just that: like a dream. Some days I think of that phone call so many years ago, the excitement of it, the unrestrained joy scampering around my limbs as if I’d been bathed in the brightest of suns. I remember feeling that I’d finally found my place in the world, that my days of roving the classifieds in search of another job, another life, were over. That I was finally coming home.

Eleven years later, and I’m still wandering. Still wondering. Still pushing towards the dream. I can’t imagine my life as something other than an aspiring writer, and though my successes in my chosen field have been few, I have no regrets. Who I am and what I’ve become, the inroads and stumbles, the triumphs and failures, these I lay quietly at the feet of my God-given passion.  

That email from a publisher may not appear in my inbox this afternoon, and the phone call I’ve spent years waiting for may never come again, but tomorrow I’ll wake up and sit before a blank screen.

Tomorrow, I’ll write something great.

Tomorrow, everything will change.