There is the cocktail party version of the worst screw up of my career, and I could do that: tell a funny story about how my zipper was down in a big interview, or the time the f-bomb flew off my tongue. You might chuckle at the surface of the story, but what is underneath the cocktail party type story is my congratulating myself for being sexy or wild, and your—as an audience—appreciation of that version of me. On another level is our collusion, our relief that something bad didn't happen, everything turned out OK. People curse, pants fall off, and everything is fine in the end.
But I want to address something darker. There are real mistakes in life. And this "career blunder" is about time wasted, work wasted, goals not achieved, or worse, goals not even set.
I deeply passionately wanted to be a writer. I identified as a writer from the earliest age, 6?
At 12? I lived to read. In my mind I communed with other writers. Written words, words in books, were my world.
But it wasn't till deep into the middle of my life that my first book was published. Why? What was I doing? I had good publishing credits from decades earlier. What had I been doing? I got an MFA I didn't need. I worked for 20 years in publishing helping other writers land book contracts.
I've watched this same pattern repeatedly in women: her first or most powerful book coming out remarkably late in life. First she had to get her kids into kindergarten, or high school, or even college. First she had to lose the love of her life, or have her parent die, or face another terrible loss. First she had to get a degree or three to get permission, to be allowed to do what she deeply loved doing. Why?
It may not be the same for men. They seem more likely to decide to be what they want and then just do it, not waiting for permission or for their whole system of affiliations to support that activity.
There was a project I could have done before I turned 35. It was close to finished. My faculty advisor begged me to finish it. I didn't. It wasn't good enough, I thought. Several chapters from it were accepted by literary journals. Which is a nice quiet way to publish since only writer-friendly people read them, and not many of them. But I didn't finish it. I didn't offer it up to the world. Doing that was too vulnerable, what if it sucked?
I have the three quarters of a novel still, in a box, not a flash drive, that's how old it is. Many pages. Last summer I made myself read it. I can see what's good about it. Much of the writing is fine, fresh, original. But useless. The book has no relevance to my life now. I couldn't possibly finish it. I have no interest in finishing it. It would be like going back to my first husband, inconceivable.
I didn't finish it because I was secretly sure it sucked. I cultivated an attitude of not caring, as if striving itself was embarrassing. I simply turned toward other work, toward my relationships. Not admitting to myself that if I wasn't good enough to achieve what I wanted: to make my words bloom in other readers' minds, I couldn't bear it. Not even admitting to myself that I wanted exactly that.
Now I know that it is OK to suck. I know that the feeling of suckitude goes with the human condition. Goes with writing. Suckitude is vulnerability. Vulnerability is good. The feeling of vulnerability is one of being open to what may come. And yes, it could be awful. The opposite of vulnerability is being closed off, being smug. Having already decided where you will end up.
I can now sit down in the middle of a project and think yes, I hate it. Yes, I want to die. Yes, I should work in any field at all but this. And I can tell myself, this is the path. This is what you have chosen. You have chosen to do something where the next step is not obvious. Where successful completion of your last project does not give you a blueprint for your next project.
I can't return to that book because my fascination has moved on. There is another book, in many messy pages, that has my heart. It is relevant to who I am now. Within its pages I can take risks I wouldn't take then. Like finishing it, as best I can, and letting it find its fate.
I know better what being a writer means. Writing is holding up to the world the inside of your mind, your messy, original, scarily weird mind. I allow myself to want to have my words bloom in other readers' minds. It may be a peculiar thing to want, but it's what I want.
Leslie Daniels is an author and literary agent.