Measuring Failure

Measuring Failure:

Recently I received a fan letter from a 16 year old high school student.  Unlike most of my mail from readers, this was hand written and sent snail mail to my publisher, then forwarded to me.  Most people contact me via email through my website.  I’m sending a copy of this blog back to her with a personal letter.

This student confessed to me that she wanted to become a veterinarian.   Not just normal small pets.  She wanted to work with exotic animals.  But all the adults in her life told her not to bother.  She’d never succeed.

I don’t know this girl.  I don’t know if she has good grades in biology, chemistry, and math: prerequisites for a college major in biology before applying to veterinary school — there are only about 6 in this country and the competition is stiff.  I don’t know if she has the financial means, or the willingness to search out loans and grants for her chosen field.

But I do know she has a dream.

I had a dream too.  I wanted to be a ballerina.  I wanted to get a Ph.D and teach college level history.  Neither of those dreams came true as other dreams replaced them.  But through it all I always wanted to write.  For as long as I can remember I put myself to sleep at night making up stories and continuing the next night where I left off.  In those precious moments before sleep overtook me, I lived the adventures and the emotional upheaval of my characters.

All of the adults in my life, parents, teachers, pastors, and much older siblings told me that writing was a nice little hobby.  It is important to learn to write well in order to communicate in business and in our personal lives.  But if I really wanted to write I needed to become an expert in something and write non-fiction about that subject and that subject only.  Otherwise I was doomed to failure.

But I didn’t want to write non-fiction.  I wanted stories.  I wanted to live the adventures and emotional upheavals of my characters.  I read fiction by choice, learning about life and love, success and failure through that medium.  Now I know that I learn visually and need a colorful metaphor to hook my mind into before I can begin to think about engaging logic.  Non-fiction still goes in one eye and out the other ear for lack of those visual metaphors.

I let the adults in my life dictate my level of failure until well into my thirties.   Then one summer, my son entered some contest that came through the mail.  One of the prizes was a book, “Writing Romances for Love and Money.”   I read it and started thinking.   A few days later one girlfriend graduated from dental school.  She had incurred enormous student debt and her family sacrificed a lot during her 7 years of taking science classes part time to qualify for the entrance exam for dental school, then another 4 years of full time study and practice  A second girlfriend saw her youngest son graduate from high school.  Within a week she sold her house and furniture.  She packed her car with her books and clothes and went to the Episcopal Seminary in Berkley, incurring huge debt in student loans and sacrificing close contact with friends and family while living in a strange city.

I couldn’t think of anything I wanted badly enough to make those kinds of sacrifices.  Except maybe writing.  What would it take for me to finally make that childhood dream come true?

That night I set up a miniature office in the dining room and began outlining a book.  I told my family that I couldn’t know I had failed until I tried.

It took me five years of taking my writing seriously, joining Romance Writers of America, and sacrifices in time and money.    I earned an honorable mention in the Golden Heart competition.  I won a couple of smaller writing contests.  I endured many rejections.  Then on October 13, 1993 at 1:33 PM I got the call.  DAW books wanted to give me a 3 book contract on my Dragon Nimbus Series.

Fifteen years and 21 books later, I have had some good years when I made a significant amount of money.  I’ve had bad years where my income barely put groceries on the table.

I can only say that I had no way of knowing that I would fail until I tried.  And tried again, and again, and again.

So, to that 16 year old high school student with the dream of becoming a veterinarian: I advise you to work for your dream.  Accept the sacrifices and persevere.  You can’t know you have failed until you try.  You haven’t failed until to stop trying.



About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


Measuring Failure — 3 Comments

  1. Well said. Just recently I realized multiple reasons my writing had slowed in the past. Not just illness — my mother raised her daughters to be people pleasers. It took a failed marriage and a long-term relationship for me to see that until I put the work first, I wasn’t going to get anywhere.

    So…you can drop by Box City if you’re ever in the neighborhood. I’ll make scones and we can discuss cover styles and how to encourage more kids to read.

    Pros should be able to do that. After all — there’s no job we want more, or will work harder for, than writing fiction for as large an audience as we can pull together! With luck, the boxes will be gone. Just me, the cats, the computer, and my filing cabinet.

    It’s a good mix.

  2. My SO and I have both wanted to be writers since we were children. Both of us were told we had too little talent to ‘make a go of it’.

    I am now 60, he is 57. Due to life circumstances both of us are going to try to make writing ‘work’ for us. I have received encouragement from many sources, including you. This essay makes me want to succeed for many reasons, but mostly because I want people to be able to read our stories.

  3. I hope she’ll check out some of my information here on exotic animals, Phyl. You could not be more right on about having to try first, before identifying yourself as a “failure.” Nobody ever knows until they try. If people don’t ever give it a go, then they’ll always wonder if they could have done that thing they really wanted to do. And veterinarian or working with exotic animals isn’t totally impossible. It will be very challenging for her and anyone else – but she does have a chance!! All she needs to do is go for it.

    How many little girls want to be ballerinas? So very many.

    Nobody ever told me I couldn’t write. I was encouraged from day one by teachers, my family, and anyone else I encountered. I won every prize there was to win in school (K-12, college). I began publishing when I was only 17-18 years old.

    Then the real world hit. I had to pay bills, had to feed my family and as time went on, had to take care of numerous problems and issues, from my baby daughter to my grandmother suffering from Alzheimers, and dad having congestive heart failure. I never had the TIME to do what I really ought – everyone knows I still work 2 or 3 jobs simultaneously. It’s really been a constant struggle the whole time just to find the time. One thing I did when Meredith was small was write from 5 to 7 every morning. Now I have a different schedule, and am actually meeting the goals I’ve set for the past year or so.