The Power of Failure

“Failure is not an option.” Ed Harris in the movie, “Apollo 13”

Sorry Ed, but it turns out failure not only IS an option, sometimes it seems to be almost a prerequisite to success.

I got four books for Christmas. One was Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” which is so good I can’t even begin to tell you. I mentioned it before, when I had just started reading it. I finished it a couple of weeks later and it was every bit as good as the first chapters suggested. Great book, beautifully written, easily the best book I’ve read in years, maybe decades, and I read a lot. “Born to Run” is deeply personal and moving, yet sometimes hilarious.

One of my favorite passages is when, as a high school student, he rounded up a couple of other friends who could play a little and formed a band. After their first big gig – an unqualified disaster – the other members got together and voted him out of the band he had formed.

Wouldn’t you love to get those guys together now and ask, “How does it feel to be the guys who fired Bruce Springsteen from a band?”

I’m now reading Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Walter Cronkite, who for almost 20 years in the 1960s and ’70s was “the most trusted man in America” as anchor of the CBS Evening News. In this – shall we say? – strained political climate, it seemed appropriate to revisit a time when the media were not only trusted, but some of its members were revered. Cronkite, you may recall, was known as “Uncle Walter” to a devoted public. If Cronkite said it, you could take it to the bank.

In one of his first jobs in the 1930s, Cronkite was the news announcer for Kansas City radio station KCMO. In fact, he was essentially the entire news staff. One day the station owner rushed to Cronkite’s desk with a scoop. The owner’s wife had just called to say City Hall was on fire and three firefighters had been killed. He ordered Cronkite to get on the air right away to issue a news bulletin.

Cronkite reached for the phone, to the owner’s consternation. “What are you doing?” “I have to make some calls and verify it.” “Are you calling my wife a liar?” Of course not,” Cronkite said, but he pleaded the need to verify the report and get more details.

The owner fired Cronkite and went on the air himself with the breathless report of K.C.’s City Hall burning down, with three firefighters plummeting to their deaths. And of course, it turned out to be completely false. There had been a small fire in City Hall, easily extinguished. Nobody injured, let alone killed.

When Cronkite died in 2009, a blogger wrote a piece titled “KCMO: Stupid Enough to Fire Cronkite; Downhill Ever Since.”

Another of the books I received for Christmas was “The Daily Show: The Book.” It’s a conversational, chronological history of the Daily Show during Jon Stewart’s 16-year run. And of course he wasn’t fired from the gig. But as he points out in the foreword, his career until then hadn’t been exactly overwhelming.

“I was a 35-year-old New York City standup comic with a canceled talk show, an unproduced screenplay, an unpublished book of essays, and two upcoming roles in Independent Films critics would almost unanimously hail as ‘speaking parts.'”

So the common thread between the stories of these three disparate men is early failure. And of course, there’s a lot more such stories. Van Gogh sold one painting in his lifetime, but he’s now considered, if not the most important modern painter, certainly one of them. Erle Stanley Gardner received a rejection telling him not only was his story bad but he should never again be allowed to write in the English language. The story was, of course, the first Perry Mason mystery. Tom Clancy’s first novel was rejected by 26 publishers before it became the No. 1 bestseller “The Hunt for Red October,” leading to a publishing success story that continues today, with a new book on the lists despite the fact that Clancy’s been dead three and a half years.

Such stories are legion, especially in the writing world where we seem to wear our rejections like badges of honor. You’re nobody ’til somebody tells you you stink.

In each of those three books – Springsteen, Cronkite and Stewart – the key was not the failure but what they did with it.

Springsteen was brutally honest with himself, both as an artist and a person. He knew where he wanted to go with his music, and he cold-bloodedly looked at his strengths and weaknesses, then did what he had to do to improve until he not only was able to make a living as a musician, but become one of the most important musicians of the last 40 years. In his personal life, at the prodding and insistence of his wife, he went into therapy and confronted the ghosts of his childhood that were standing in the way of his establishing meaningful relationships, of being the father he wanted to be. He spent years looking for a way to forge a loving relationship with the father he hated (and didn’t realize for many years that he had hated.) He turned himself into who he wanted to become by hard work and unflinching self-honesty.

There were a lot of people who looked for success in the burgeoning field of radio in the 1930s. Cronkite was one of the ones who made it – and you could argue he made it farther than anyone – by adhering to high ethical standards that he didn’t compromise for the sake of a job or a short-term gain. He also worked at his craft. He taught himself to speak in an easy, conversational style instead of the stereotypical staccato burst of the radio announcers of the day. He forced himself to read the news at 124 words a minute, while the average American speaks at about 165. That allowed listeners to really hear him, and to let the words come through so they could be comprehended. He was the master of the pause, not babbling inanely but allowing the moment to speak for itself.

And Stewart was simply never satisfied. When he took over “The Daily Show” it was already somewhat successful, and the writing staff made it very clear to him that no little failed MTV host was going to tell them how to do it. They were furious that he had his own ideas. So over the first couple of years there were fights and scenes until he was able to mold the show into something that fit , his sensibility. He never intended to create a cultural touchstone, never dreamed that someday he would be compared to Will Rogers and Mark Twain. He just wanted the show give him a chance to say what he wanted to say, to not be canceled too early in the run, and to be funny.

And funny is serious business. It’s hard work. You don’t just go out for 22 minutes a night, four nights a week, and yuk it up. You have to have a point of view. Most days, after the 4 p.m. rehearsal, Stewart, the head writer and one or two others would retire to a small room behind the set and rewrite the show in the hour before they actually filmed it. Sometimes it would just be tweaks. More often than not, they would rewrite the entire show! Because it wasn’t enough for it to be good, it had to be as good as it could be. It had to mean something.

There are thousands, maybe millions, of stories of people turning failure into success, people who don’t allow a roadblock to become the end of the line, a dead end. They know what they want, and aren’t afraid to pick themselves up, learn their lessons and keep going until, by dint of hard work, they achieve their goal or surpass it.

Thomas Edison famously said, when trying to perfect the incandescent light bulb, that he hadn’t failed. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Being honest with yourself, recognizing what didn’t work and why, is part of charting the path to success. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

The Hat Makes the Man

stingy-brim
Me in my leather coat and felt hat, which now has a new name.

The weather was cool as I entered an office building last week, so I was wearing my leather jacket and my black felt hat. As I walked past the lobby desk toward the elevators, the older gentleman at the desk called to me. I wasn’t sure what he said, so I stopped and asked him to repeat himself.

“I like your stingy brim!” he said.

I still didn’t get it, really. And asked him one more time.

“Your hat! We used to call that a stingy brim! You’re rockin’ that stingy brim!”

I’ve never heard that name, but I like it a lot. And it’s the sort of detail that, as a writer, you want to store away. A character of a certain age in a certain time and place – an older black man in New Orleans – might make a passing reference to “a stingy brim,” adding verisimilitude to a character and scene.

It’s the details that make the difference, that separate a generic scene to one that comes alive. And as a writer, you’ve got to be a sponge for them. The way kids talk today, the way your parents talked 30 years ago. You might wash your laundry in Tide. Your grandparents might have used Fels-Naptha. It’s a hundred different, little things, what James Kilpatrick called “the telling details,” the fix your story in a specific place and time. (And the fact that I referenced James Kilpatrick instead of “Grammar Girl” fixes me at a certain age, place and time.)

Most people, when they see you wearing a felt hat – any felt hat, as opposed to a sports cap – say, “I like your fedora!” That’s because fedora is the only word they know. But it’s only one style.

bogart
Bogart in his fedora.

Fedoras have a wide brim (usually turned down in front, up in back) and a pointed or tear-drop-shaped crease in the crown. It’s the go-to hat of film noir. You see Bogart wearing a fedora in “The Maltese Falcon” (one of my favorite movies) and a host of other films. You’ll see it on Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum in all of those classics.

THE GODFATHER, Al Pacino, 1972 godfather1-fsc48(godfather1-fsc48)
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.”

But though the fedora is closely tied to our image of gangsters, the hat Al Pacino wears in the first “Godfather” is NOT a fedora. It’s a Homburg.

The Homburg has a narrowed brim (one might call it a “stingy brim.) The crown usually has a crease straight across, from front to back. It’s called a gutter crease. In the mid-20th century, the Homburg was the hat of politicians and statesmen and the upper class. You can see photos of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Konrad Adenauer and lots of others statesman wearing it.

I have two hats, the Homburg and my Panama. They’re my fall/winter hat and my spring summer hat. I particularly love my Homburg.

But of course, from now on, it’s my Stingy Brim.

When You Work the Fair – You Work

the-jolly-rogers
Ol’ Chumbucket and the Jolly Rogers.

That’s how you sell them, one book at a time. One reader at a time. Over and over. You do whatever it takes.

We were at the Louisiana Renaissance Festival last Saturday. The festival has theme weekends, and last weekend was pirates. I had made arrangements with the guy who runs Pigasus Books, a roving Ren Faire book merchant, to sign books.

I was the guest of Master James of York, the owner of Pigasus and a right charming gent. He had set up a table outside his tent and had a chair for me. It looked disreputable, but he told me it was actually very comfortable. I wouldn’t know. I never sat down.

That’s rule No. 1, of course. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – The bookstore or venue will usually provide a table and chair. Never sit down in the chair. If you sit down, you disappear. It’s too easy for the crowd flowing past to ignore you, to refuse to make eye contact, to willfully not see you, even when you’re dressed in full pirate gear. (And at a Renaissance festival, pirate gear tends to blend right in.)

No, you’ve gotta make them see you. You’ve got to engage them, draw them in. Especially at an event that isn’t specifically about books. If you’re working at a bookstore or book fair, people expect to buy books. At a Renaissance festival, books are one of the last things on their minds. So you have to get their attention.

Hardly a soul walked by that didn’t, at the very least, get a hearty “Ahoy!” from me. I talked to almost anyone. If they gave an embarrassed smile and muttered, “Hello!” they got a rejoinder that it was pirate weekend and only “Ahoy!” would do. One woman gave me a “Howdy,” and I chased after her until she mended her ways.

And sometimes that was it. More times than most. But if they slowed, paused, or looked inclined to interact with the pirate, I’d start pitching “a pirate adventure, written for pirates, BY a pirate!”

You never knew what might work. If they wanted to talk, you talked with them. One family was the Jolly Rogers – their last name was Rogers, and by god they were jolly! I explained about International Talk Like a Pirate Day, how I came to write the novel, listened to them talk about the books they liked, and eventually made the sale. Nice people, I hope to see them again.

Then there was the husband and wife from Lafayette who listened, and whose ears perked up when I mentioned writing the first draft while living in the Caribbean. What was that like? Turns out they were feeling very bad about the election and were contemplating moving back overseas. They had been thinking Europe (they’d spent a couple of years in the Czech Republic) but wanted to know what the Caribbean was like. We talked about island life for about ten minutes, maybe more. Then, a little bit to my surprise, they bought a copy of “Chrissie.”

Sometimes you can tell in the first 30 seconds whether you’re going to make a sale, but you never give up. One family had a couple of smaller kids. We chatted, and I talked with the kids, but you could feel it wasn’t happening. Then the wife suddenly looked at Tori and asked, “Were you guys on TV?” I sighed inwardly. She was talking about our “Wife Swap” experience, in which we played the “pirate family” on the ABC “reality” show. (I put “reality” in quotes for a reason.) So we chatted about that for a minute or two, and they ended up buying a copy of “A Li’l Pirate’s ABSeas.”

You do what it takes.

And everyone who bought a book went away with the postcard with book info, my website and my email address, and I asked each one to please write to me and let me know what they thought of the book. I always do that, and I mean it. I really want to know.

By the end of the day, we had moved some paper. And Master James of York took the rest of the stock I”d brought in. So at the end of the day we had had a lot of fun, and made a little money.

Well, we made a little money unless you count the fact that while Tori and I were selling, our kids Max and Kate were out wandering the festival, with my credit card in their pocket. SO it was more of a wash, really.

But a fun wash.

Houma, Sweet Houma

The tricky part about being an author at a book festival is remembering that you’re there to sell books, not buy them.

At Books on the Bayou in Houma, Louisiana, Saturday, there were some really interesting looking books, some that sounded like good reads. It was all I could do to keep from picking up several of them, took a lot of self-control, discipline. Not qualities that come naturally to pirates.

John and Tori – or Ol' Chumbucket and Mad Sally – at the Books on the Bayou event at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library in Houma.
John and Tori – or Ol’ Chumbucket and Mad Sally – at the Books on the Bayou event at the Terrebonne Parish Public Library in Houma.

When we did the event two weeks ago we had a small setup at the back of the room. The other two authors at that event had much fancier spreads, and we knew we’d have to step up our game. Tori took it on with her usual passion, and Saturday we had far and away the most eye catching, fanciest display. The small chest we had picked up a year ago at a yard sale specifically for displaying books. Tori added a burlap table cover and netting. She painted our easel and we had a poster made of the cover photo. And she added all the little stuff, the beads and the old-looking doubloons. Even the sign-up sheet got the treatment. Instead of a yellow legal pad, she found a leather-bound journal that fit the theme and seemed to make people eager to give us their names and email addresses.

So we sold some books and went home with fewer books than we came with. That’s the ideal.

But we didn’t sell as may as the priest.

Sitting right next to us was an older gentleman, Father Todd, selling a book of daily devotionals, stories for each day of the year with a message. And everyone walking through the lobby of the (very, very nice) Terrebonne Parish Public Library knew him, stopped by to chat with him and – usually – forked over the $25 for his book. How do you not buy your parish priest’s book, especially when he’s sitting right there looking at you and telling you how to use it?

One book we did end up getting was “Before the Saltwater Came” by Wendy Wilson Billiot. It’s an illustrated children’s book on saltwater intrusion – yeah, sounds like something the kids are clamoring for, right? But it’s a terrific way of introducing an important subect – care of the environment – to young learners. It tells the story of an otter whose life is changed by the effects of human development in the freshwater marshes and asks its young readers “What will YOU do?” Good book.

Houma is about an hour southwest of New Orleans, in the heart of the bayou – Cajun country. They are colorful people, those Cajuns. During a lull in the proceedings Darryl DiMaggio, one of the local authors, whose book “Swamp Eagles” was a compilation of stories from his years as a seaplane pilot in the bayous, turned to us and said, “I haven’t had this much fun since the hogs ate my little brother.”

Colorful.

We had a good time and sold some books in Houma, met a lot of interesting people – a former sniper selling his adventure novels, a retired teacher who now has a slew of funny kids books out, and the irrepressible DiMaggio. We learned a few things from everyone. And I saw a book title that tickled an idea in my mind. I emailed my pirate partner, Cap’n Slappy, about it, and he’s gun ho, and already at work on the concept. More information on this, I hope, to come.

We finished the day with a late lunch at Big Mike’s BBQ Smokehouse, where they have great ribs! So all in all, a terrific outing. And we sold some books!

(And a big thank you to Captain John Swallow, for alerting me to this event, and the Terrebonne Public Library for making it happen!)