If you always do what you've always done...
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.
Thus spake somebody; nobody on the internet seems to be sure who. But it’s a good saying—a less derisive version of that other bit of wisdom, also of mysterious origins (it’s not actually Einstein, alas), about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Both little nuggets were very much on my mind about a year and a half ago, on account what happened to a woman I know. I’ll call her “Janette.”
Janette is a writer. She spent five years, 2013 to 2018, to be exact, working on a novel. It was about class and gentrification and motherhood and opioid addiction and childhood cancer. It was gritty stuff, and she poured her heart and soul and untold hours into it. She thought it was pretty damned good. So did her agent. Janette was very excited, very hopeful about the novel making its way into print.
But when her agent went out with it to publishers—like, a lot of publishers—he wasn't able to find a taker. People had wonderful things to say about the writing and the story. They said things like “I’m sure I’ll be kicking myself for turning this down” and “I’m sure you’ll find a home for this.” But, bottom line, they didn’t want to take a chance on it. It wasn’t independent press material either, being a bit too mainstream and commercial in style.
I—I mean, Janette, was devastated. Here was this thing she’d labored on for all that time, sacrificing early mornings and weekend days, her husband looking after the kids like a champ when she took off for writing residencies and retreats to finish the damned thing. (Like me, Janette has an awesome husband. I actually find him rather attractive. Shh.) But all the work turned out to be for naught.
Janette drank a little too much wine and ate a few too many carbs. She cried some. She may have kicked some things. After one particularly painful rejection, she agreed, in an out-of-body daze, to take the kids to adopt a kitten they’d seen advertised online. (This kitten turned out to be possibly the best publishing booby prize ever.)
Janette wasn’t just sad and angry and disappointed, though. She was embarrassed. All the friends and family and fellow writer acquaintances she’d told that she was writing a book would know that she’d failed. It was humiliating.
Janette was done with writing novels, she said. She’d written one back in her grad school days that never saw the light of day; another that was also rejected by every publisher in the world except for a teeny local indie press, and now this.
I won’t lie to you; Janette was not in a good place.
But fortunately, Janette is made of tough stuff. She’s not one to wallow around in her misery indefinitely. No. Janette—she’s a fighter. She’s been through far worse shit than an unpublished novel. Try having one of her children battle cancer. Try major depression. Try some seriously fucked up family dynamics. (Janette and I, we have a lot in common.)
Janette reminded herself that in the grand scheme of things, an unpublished book is not some great human tragedy. She also found that when she dared to talk about it with other writer friends, a surprising number of them—including people who had published multiple books in the past and had had a good deal of success—said OMG, SAME THING HAPPENED TO ME! It just hadn’t seemed that way because nobody ever talked about it. Like Janette, people were too embarrassed and ashamed. As if whether or not their work was considered commercially viable was some kind of judgment on the actual merit of it. (Wouldn’t it be better, Janette commented to me at one point, if people were more openly honest and vulnerable about their disappointments and failures? It would, I said. You go first.)
Talking with other writers, some of them extremely talented, who’d been in her shoes, Janette felt a little less alone. A little less pathetic.
So she forced herself to dust herself off and move on. Not that she didn't still feel very bitter sometimes, and jealous; Like me, Janette is friends with a lot of writers, some of whom are quite successful. Often, she’d be at their events or book parties (aside: remember events?! And parties?!), feeling genuinely happy for their success, but at the same time murderously jealous. When will it be my fucking turn? Janette would ask herself, and then shove a pulled pork slider into her mouth and order another drink.
But one day, I said to Janette: “Hey, I know you say you’re over that other novel and everything, but you’re not writing, and you seem sort of off. How about you take a writing class? When’s the last time you actually took a class instead of teaching one? It might be fun.”
Janette liked this idea. She signed up for a short story class. It was fun, and inspiring. It felt good. And unlike novels, short stories didn’t require a major time commitment. She wrote a couple of short-shorts and started a few stories she thought maybe she’d finish later.
But the thing is, Janette isn’t a short story writer by nature. She prefers reading novels and loves the exquisite torture of writing them. So I wasn't that surprised when, one day in early 2019, she confessed to me that, to her own consternation, she was starting to get excited about an idea she had for a new novel: Something funny and light and satirical and weird; a commentary on social media and politics and the 24-hour news cycle; a story about a reluctant, perimenopausal internet sensation whose life is upended by her husband’s infidelity.
At first she resisted the pull. She didn't want to spend years on another novel only to get her heart broken again. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got,” she said. “I’m not an idiot.” Then she dropped the Einstein quote about insanity, and I was like “That’s not Einstein; look it up” and she was like, “Shut up, Jane,” and I was like, “OK, fine.”
But, I told her, this book idea you have sounds different. It sounds like a subject and a genre that’s something of a departure from what you’ve done before. You haven’t written funny fiction. You haven’t written satire. Maybe this isn’t what you’ve always done. Maybe this is something new. Maybe you’ll get different results.
Janette considered this. (She is a pain in the ass, but she does listen to me sometimes.)
Eventually, she came back to me and said fine, maybe I was right. Maybe this was different. But, she added, that didn’t guarantee different results. So this was what she’d decided: She was not going to spend years on it, or pin all her hopes on it. She was going to bang out a first draft in a year. And if it worked, it worked. If it didn’t, it didn’t. No way was she ever going to spend five years on a book without some assurance it was going to be published. Life was too short, and she wasn’t getting any younger. (“You still look great, though, Janette,” I told her. She really does.)
She’d write a shitty first draft, she said. She’d only work on it for as long as she was actually having fun. She wouldn’t worry about it being perfect. She’d just write the damned thing.
And by God, she did it: She wrote and wrote and wrote. She joined an incredible Master Novel class with a bunch of other kickass writers who gave her feedback and cheered her on. And in the course of almost exactly a year, she managed to crank out and semi-revise a full draft. The best part is that she had a lot more fun writing it than she did any other book before. It felt more true and real to who she was, and what she wanted to be writing. She was happy.
“But,” I said recently, after Janette had sent it off to her agent to read, “You’re not going to actually tell people beyond your closest circle about this, right? You’re not going to admit that your last book wasn’t published, and then set yourself up for humiliation by telling people you wrote another one. What if it doesn’t get published either and everyone knows that you failed again?”
Janette paused. I could tell—because Janette and I are simpatico like this—that she was thinking about the state of the wider world and everything in it: A raging pandemic, a divided nation, a warming planet. She was thinking about vital things like the health and happiness of the people she loved. She was thinking about the magnitude of challenges facing our nation, like racial injustice and inequality and the fragility of our democracy.
After a spending a moment weighing all of this against the hill-of-beans reality of her own vanity, and then considering, again, that hunch she had that the world might be a more humane place if people shared their disappointments and failures more openly, Janette shrugged.
“Who the fuck cares?” she said.