Review: The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding by John McNally

Reviewed by: Angela Eckhart

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promise of failure cover broken pencilYou know you’re a writer when you finish writing a nonfiction book in seventh grade and then actually submit it to major New York publishers. Author John McNally tells us about his first attempts at getting published in elementary school in his newest memoir on writing, The Promise of Failure: One Writer’s Perspective on Not Succeeding (University of Iowa Press, June 2018). And at 14 years old, McNally did gain his first taste of rejection. A lot of rejection.

This is what McNally’s book is about, literally, the promise of failure, because failure is most likely to happen prior to success, unless you are one of the lucky ones that achieves publication after a few tries. “In this profession,” he says, “failure isn’t just a fact of life; it’s a necessary part of the process.” He supports this idea with his own experiences, as well as noting those famous predecessors who had failed (sometimes too many to count) but eventually succeeded.

McNally’s idea for this book originated from Facebook, where many people only posted their “success” updates. McNally decided to post his failures as a writer and was mildly surprised to gain so many like-minded responses. People were identifying, personally, with his own rejections, bringing to the surface the fact that everyone experience rejection. The difference lies in how one handles the rejection, and “not yield to its reputation on the streets.” And this, as McNally elaborates upon, is one of the hardest things to do, especially when people around you are not as supportive as they could be (such as his father). He elaborates:

Our entire culture is geared toward success as a benchmark for worthiness, and if we don’t succeed while others around us (our classmates, strangers, people on Facebook) do succeed, our self-worth suffers even if we are happy that our classmates, strangers, and people on Facebook have succeeded. We are, most of us, good people, and we like to hit the ‘like’ button….

So then, if writers continually fail to get published, why write? The meat of this book is in how McNally continued to persevere, and his musings are honest, inspirational, and motivating. There are so many helpful tips to take away from his personal experiences of rejection and learning how to keep going…to keep writing…most of which all writers will be able to identify with. He provides book recommendations and advice for those who really want it, in addition to broaching the topics of depression, anxiety, and addictions. Those issues may affect the writing processes and outcomes for many writers, and many writers neglect to talk about them.

In furthering his discussion on failing, McNally posits, “It becomes failure or rejection only when it’s attached to publication, awards, grades, graduation from an MFA program, or something else that ultimately has little to do with the creative process….” This does make complete sense; however, McNally reminds us to not forget the reasons why we wanted to write in the first place (and not just for a grade or to be published). For McNally, “Each story I write, each novel, is a journey into my subconscious, and by the journey’s end, whether it’s a week or a month or several years later, I’ve learned something about myself.” We write for many different reasons, but if we are serious about it, despite rejection, then “…let the act of writing be its own reward. The very fact that you can sit down and create a three-dimensional world out of the alphabet’s twenty-six letters is a tremendous gift.”

This is an excellent book for all writers, including teachers, but there is something for everyone in McNally’s memoir, in that we all fail at something at some point in our lives. And when we feel, or others make us feel, as if we should give up, McNally expresses the ultimate statement that, “I have always been of the belief that as long as you’re not hurting anyone, it’s foolish not to pursue the thing you want to pursue, even if you pursue it badly.” McNally’s book deserves a permanent place on a shelf next to other valuable books on writing for future reference.

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