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How Do You Keep On Keeping On In The Face Of Great Odds?

We all hate to fail.  Of course we do.  We don’t set out to accomplish anything with the thought of failing in mind.

Ice climbing the North Caucasus.

Okay, so I’ve always thought with pre-nups before marriage folks were hedging their bets.  In fact, I’d love to see a study of the percentage of people signing those whose marriages do go kaput!  But that’s a different story 🙂

In anything we undertake, however, the odds of failing, at least somewhere in the process, are high.  There are those people who sail through post-graduate school and never stumble, not once.  I’ve heard of them, though I don’t know anyone personally who has done that.

As just one example, the percentage of people entering a Ph.D. program:

“About one in five people in the life sciences drop out entirely during the program. And by about year six, according to the project data, only about 42 percent of doctoral students in the life sciences will have completed their degree, 34 percent will still be slaving away at it, and 24 percent will have thrown in the towel. For the math and physical sciences, only about 39 percent complete their degree by year six, 27 percent are still going, and 34 percent have dropped out.”


What’s that internal thing that causes some people to succeed at the highest levels, and others to fall by the wayside?

Learning from failure and picking yourself up off the mat and trying again.

I know it’s hard—trust me, I know!  I often wonder if I chose a crazy path in some other life, stubbornly sticking with it once I got here.  Or if I’m just plain stubborn.  Or, garden-variety nuts.

Because I chose a creative path.  Not just to do on the side, but to revolve my life around.  And anyone choosing the arts as a vocation has to be a mixture of the above.

Because while earning a degree in rocket science must be incredibly arduous, a well-worn pathway does exist to get there.  You know if you accomplish A, you’ll get to B.  And so on.  If you have the aptitude, the wherewithal, the stick-to-it-ness, don’t fall prey to the many demons along the way, you’ll earn your degree and a job will be had.

In the arts, not so much.

The road for an artist is filled with twists and turns and no clear way spreads before you.  While oft-trod paths are discernible, what works for one artist doesn’t for the next.

And even once you master whatever craft, no yellow-brick road appears to take you to that brass ring.


And even if you do everything right, that doesn’t mean the pieces will all fall into place and you’ll be a financial or literary or artist success, in the usual manner we weigh such things.

Authors, if they’ve been in the trenches long, know this.  The stark realities hit us in the face fairly soon (that being a relative term, as it’s usually years down the road when one realizes only a very few “make it” in publishing).

And in that very grind, most fall away.  I’ve seen it all my professional life, seen writers come and go, discouraged, disheartened, taking personally their lack of success (I mean, it is difficult not to do so—we’re not selling bread dough here, but parts of our souls).

I’m sure it’s the same for other arts, but writing and publishing is what I know.


How many decades do you hone your craft, putting out wonderful work, for it not to be acknowledged but by a few?  Is this nuts?  Should I grow up and “be” some professional person, “succeeding” as the world views it?  Isn’t that what being an adult is all about?

Can you tell how many times along this path I’ve asked those questions?

The answers of course are unique.  No two writers have the same set of life circumstances.


Personal traits and attributes play huge parts.  The ability to be humbled to one’s knees and keep getting up and trying again may be termed courage.  Or, insanity.  Or anything in between.  But it’s up to only the person to decide which (often at many junctures), and whether to keep keeping on.

Our industry is replete with those who’ve fallen and never risen again.  For every John Henry Toole, author of Confederacy of Dunces (which is one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read), who after beating his head against publishing’s wall to no success in selling the manuscript, killed himself—not too terribly long before it did sell and go on to huge acclaim—there must be thousands of writers who’ve done the same and we never knew about.  Sadly, I know some personally.

So again, the field I know is replete with monsters.

And although I counsel writers every day as to what it takes to persevere in this business, it’s not one I would recommend lightly.  Link to ed site


It depends a lot on what you believe to be “success.”  I know, that sounds like a dodge.  But it’s actually the heart of the matter.  If success is bestsellerdom, ah . . .  let’s have a nice glass of Pinot and talk about it.  If, however, success is writing the very best books you can possibly write, sticking it out, finding an audience—no matter how big or small—well then, how tough is your skin? is always my first question.

In essence, you have to do it for you, not for worldly acclaim or that big house on the lake.

Ah, then, we can talk about how to get up off that mat every time you get knocked down.  Because knocked down, you will be.

You will fail far, far more times than you will succeed.

What you do with that failure, how you react, whether you persevere, learning from the fall downs, those are the only reactions that matter.

And yes, you can always choose a different road.  One that’s not so bruising, which doesn’t cut your legs out from under you at every turn.  There is nothing to be ashamed of for doing so.  Those people probably are saner anyway!  But they’ll still meet with failure of some kind.

I often remember what philosopher Og Mandino said in A Better Way to Live: “Remember that even the most successful lives contain chapters of failure just as any good novel does, but how the book ends depends on us. We are the authors of our years, and our failures and defeats are only steps to something better.” 

So how do you keep on keeping on, in the face of great odds?


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Rhett DeVane

    Nice to know that perseverance pays off, eventually… perhaps not in the way we thought it might, but often better.

    1. Susan Malone

      It does, Rhett–and you’re living proof! Of course, we did have to choose novelist as the goal, no? 🙂

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