The Hero is You: Thoughts on Failure & Identity

Despite a nearly life-long fear of public speaking, about six or so years ago, I just got over it and now I love the opportunity to speak on things that matter to me. So I jumped at the opportunity when my friend asked me to speak about failure and identity for her leadership course at the university where I work.

I was not prepared for how emotional this would be for me.

Emotional, but good. Freeing. Meaningful. An ebenezer, “stone of help,” a way to remember God’s grace to me.

My writing journey has been a long one– from being a young storyteller, to learning to write, to declaring in high school the life goal of publishing a book. Then to college and a major in creative writing, joining critique groups, spending four years on a manuscript that taught me the long narrative arc, writing workshops and conferences, professional editors, and getting a literary agent.

Then, finally, the book deal.

With a big publisher.

A dream come true.

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that the book deal brought on panic and anxiety, fear that shook me, frustration, and YES: a novel named Truest that I am so, so proud of.

To keep a long story short, and to protect the details of my journey, I’ll summarize and say that, though it was originally a two-book deal, I ended up only publishing the one. (For now!) The details here are important but private. And though I initiated it, at the time, it was not empowering. To have a dream come true and yet find myself in a state of panic and shame, then to walk in the opposite direction of what had always been the goal, was painful and confusing. I felt like a fraud, despite the evidence of a published book. I felt shame when people called me a writer, because it felt like I hadn’t earned it. It was embarrassing to feel inner failure while well-meaning people asked about success.

I was no longer under contract, and in fact, I was hardly writing at all. The fear and anxiety became so intense that I could barely open my manuscript document, let alone work on it. How could I call myself a writer if I wasn’t writing?

In addition, the anxiety, stress, and sadness had taken a physical toll on my body. I was in near-constant pain, sapped of all energy and strength, and had gained weight to a point where I didn’t recognize my own body. This only intensified my feelings of failure and shame, plus the lack of energy and proliferation of pain made me miss a lot of work in my day job and time with friends. The various markers of my identity were toppling like dominoes. It was a dark season.

I began to slowly crawl toward the light by seeking– and insisting— on help, both medical and emotional. A diagnosis of sleep apnea, a CPAP, and a therapist who is an absolute angel were critical parts of recovering pieces of myself.

Then I read The Hero is You by Kendra Levin, which gave me real, practical and meaningful exercises that were like handholds out of the hole I was in. One of the exercises she suggested was to rate myself in a variety of areas, and then go after the lowest rated one by journaling about it daily for fifteen minutes– not to solve it, just to sit with it.

For one week. Seven days. It only took me three before my entire mindset shifted.

Please allow me to share some excerpts.

So, the goal with this exercise is to just sit in the weakness, not try to solve it. At least, that’s what I think is meant to happen here. I selected “focus” as my greatest vulnerability, but mostly because it listed “insecurity” beneath it. And that’s wildly true for me. I don’t know if it is connected to my childhood or what, but I have always wanted to be the best. Not just 100%, not if someone else got 100%. I want to be the best. So, if someone else got a perfect on the test, then I wanted to have also gotten the extra credit questions so I came in at 102%. I wanted to stand on the top box and not share that platform.
I have run into problems along the way, of course. […] a book deal I had to walk away from (funny that I see this as a weakness; it took exceptional courage!), the fear that comes from trauma, the physical illness that resulted from who-knows-what and that has taken so long to get under control. Even now, I’m not sure if it’s fair to say that it’s under control, but it’s better. So much better.

Already day one, I had the briefest of insights that maybe I had more power than I’d thought: “funny that I see this as a weakness; it took exceptional courage!

All right, time to spend another fifteen minutes thinking about insecurity. Cool.
[…] So let’s talk about writing. […] What does success look like to me? Because if I define success as publishing books that people read and like … I’ve done that. Well, one book. But it’s published. With a major publisher. People have read it. People like it. So am I successful?
Or do I define success as something bigger? Obviously, from what I wrote yesterday, we know I have issues with wanting to be THE BEST. Does that mean #1 on the NYT bestseller chart? What if it was only for one day? Would that be enough? Or does being the best mean being #1 for longer than anyone else? Just in my genre, or in all genres? Do I need to be the #1 writer in the world? In history? At what point does this crumble into ridiculousness?
Do I have to win awards? How many? What kind? What if I was runner up? What if I was #15 on the bestseller list? Would I just be angry or would I celebrate?

As you can see, day two I was beginning to remember how subjective this business is and how impossible and ridiculous it is to have a goal as vague as “be the best.”
But day three is where I saw the tectonic shift in my attitude:

All of it seems to boil down to being a failure, doesn’t it? But I’m not a failure. […]
[I was paid], which I used to buy a car and a house; I got a book published; I was able to speak in unique environments; I’ve gotten some amazing reviews. That’s pretty amazing, even if I bravely walked away from the last [advance payment] and a book deal with a Big 5 publisher.
Because isn’t that more the truth? That I bravely walked away vs. that I was kicked to the curb? When I frame it that way, I feel empowered and badass. Like I walked away from an explosion without turning around. Where are my leather pants?
I am a badass bitch.
Oh my gosh, that’s wild. Is that what others have seen or felt about me? When I’ve been thinking that I was the girl kicked to the curb? The reality is that I initiated the “break up.” And while, yes, I would have liked to have stayed with the good parts, when it turned out that the entire floor beneath my feet would vanish, I still did it. And [with a later opportunity] I said, “No thanks. I am figuring out my own foundations.”
God bless the badass bitches who walk away into uncertainty. That takes real courage.

That was in July. Now I’ve been writing up a storm and should have a revised draft by Christmas.

So did this take three days? No. Of course not. The years before it were critical parts of the healing journey, the recovery of my identity. But were these three days an unbelievably crucial part of healing? Absolutely. Just like re-telling it all in that leadership class this past week. That the class listened with such attentiveness and empathy was so special to me.

Afterward, I sat outside on a bench under the awning of another building and watched it rain on our campus green. I rested. I sat with the experience for a few extra minutes, acknowledging that something important had happened. The next day, I explained it all to my therapist, along with everything else I’m working on or working toward, and she said, “Jackie, you sound so much like YOU again!”

I think so too.

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