Kris Faatz (rhymes with skates) is a pianist, writer, and teacher. Her first novel, To Love A Stranger, was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award and was released May 2017 by Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto). Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in a number of journals, including Kenyon Review Online, Potomac Review, and Reed. When not at work, she enjoys hiking and exploring the outdoors. Visit her online, and check out her Storytelling and Sound blog, at http://krisfaatz.com.
What is most difficult about writing?
For me, often the hardest part of writing is getting past the resistance that doesn’t want to start a new project. Whether it’s because I can’t choose an idea to focus on, or because I’m scared to try something in case it doesn’t go well, I find the resistance to diving into a project can be really powerful. Life gets better once I get over that first hurdle, but it can be a big one.
Another challenge for me is the constant reflex to compare myself to other writers. “What’s So-and-so working on?” “What award/awesome review/big publishing contract did that person just get?” “How many books has Writer X finished?” My head goes very easily into a place where my work doesn’t measure up, or my writing career doesn’t measure up, compared to what other people are doing. It’s a challenge to focus on the work in front of me and put the distractions aside. Usually, when I do get into a project I’m excited about, my mind is in a better place and I don’t play the comparison game as much, but it definitely crops up whenever it gets a chance.
What is your philosophy of failure?
“Avoid failure whenever possible.” (I wish!) Seriously, though, failure continues to be something I don’t handle well at all; you could sort of say I fail at failing. Rationally, I know that mistakes are chances to learn, and that it’s important not to let them sink their teeth into you or detract from your sense of worth, but I have a very tough time moving forward when I know (or think) I’ve done something badly. I’m kind of hard-wired with the belief that mistakes are never okay, so I tend to beat myself up for a long time. That’s something I’m trying to work on.
What is the biggest mistake you have made as a writer?
My biggest general mistake (related to my above fear of mistakes) has been being proud and stubborn, hanging onto my own ideas of how my work ought to be, and shutting out suggestions that would have made it better. (When you have a hard time admitting you’re wrong, that kind of thing tends to happen a lot.) When I first started studying writing, I had a very tough time listening to what professors told me. I actively pushed feedback away, no doubt closing the door on chances to grow.
Things changed one summer when I went to an outstanding workshop run by no-nonsense professional writers. They pulled no punches in telling me what was wrong with my work, and it was such incisive and firm feedback that I had no choice but to listen. Basically, I think I had to take a beating before I could put my pride away and hear how to make my work better. Sometimes I’m still not very good at receiving feedback, but I try to notice when those reflexes are kicking in.
What is the biggest mistake you have made as a person?
My biggest, and recurring, mistake is being less than honest. Again, I think it’s that fear of imperfection kicking in, and being seen as “less than” or “unworthy” by other people. So I often try to bottle things up, things I’m embarrassed about or have done wrong, or shove them under the carpet, to pretend they don’t exist. The problem with that is that of course those secrets eventually explode. They also create distance between people that takes a while to heal. My brain always knows it would be better to tell the truth and come clean about mistakes, or problems, right away, but my reflex to hide things often wins.
What is your best failure story?
We’ve all gotten rejections, and they’re not easy for any of us, but my reactions to rejection can be pretty epic. In terms of “epic,” my best failure happened about three years ago.
At that point, I had been working for about six years on the book that’s since been published as my first novel, To Love A Stranger. I had very recently – thanks to the tough-love workshop I mentioned earlier – put together a new draft of that novel, which sort of pulled together as a story. I wasn’t yet an experienced enough writer to know what worked in that draft and what didn’t.
I’ll interject here that writing my first book was an enormous challenge. There was a lot of joy in it, but there was also a pervading sense of failure. Very often, while I knew the story itself was important, I thought that I simply wasn’t, and never would be, a good enough writer to tell it. I felt that the story desperately needed to be out in the world, but so often, what I managed to do on the page fell wildly short of what I believed the book should be.
So here I was, after six years of work, with a new draft. These were six years in which I’d also traded money for time a lot. I wasn’t working much, outside of writing, and writing of course didn’t make a dime. In spending so much time on my book, I felt like I was taking a huge gamble on myself, and maybe fifty times every day, I questioned my own sanity and worth.
I was determined to see this project through and have something to show for all the time I’d spent. So it happened that around the same time I finished my draft, submissions opened up for a literary prize that would carry a publication contract and, even better, a substantial cash award. Of course you only got those if you won, but I thought that even if I managed to make finalist, the fact that I’d done so would surely attract a publisher, and everything else would follow.
I also thought that this particular contest was a perfect fit for my book. The contest was open only to writers who had never published a book, and the winning novel would be of high literary merit and would somehow tie into social issues of the time. My book related to social issues, for sure. I wasn’t in any place to figure out its literary merit, so I decided not to worry about it.
By the time I submitted, in the summer of that year, I felt absolutely certain I’d at least be a finalist. I also felt – much more dangerously – that I had to be. By God, I was going to have something to show for my work. I was going to stop feeling like a failure. I was going to see this book through.
Fast-forward through the months of judging. At first we were told that non-finalists would be notified at the end of January that they hadn’t made it through. The end of January came and went. I let myself get excited. Then we were told there had been a delay, non-finalists would be notified by the end of March. I held my breath again. The end of March came, and there was still nothing, and I let myself believe…
And then I got the email. On April Fool’s Day.
It could have said, “You wrote an awesome book…April Fool!” but of course it didn’t. It was the standard form rejection, with the usual comforting phrases: “over a hundred entries,” “only ten finalists,” “high caliber of the work.”
At first I just sat there in front of the computer for a while. And then I remember getting up out of my chair, and then the explosion happened.
To this day, I’m amazed my neighbors didn’t call the police. (My husband and I live in a townhouse. The noise had to go through the shared walls, probably all the way down to the houses at the other end of the block.) There was screaming. There was pounding on the walls. There was pounding on the floor. There was more screaming. There was the cats fleeing to the deepest, darkest closet corner they could find. At some point, there was lying face-down on the bed with a pillow stuffed in my mouth, because by that point I at least vaguely remembered that we had neighbors. There was a cloud of shredded tissues in the air (I had to destroy something, and furniture is expensive, plus it hurts to punch it).
It was, as failures go, epic. Not just because I didn’t get what I wanted, or because I did my best to tear the house down, but also because I decided my life was over when my book wasn’t in that lucky ten percent of books that made it to the final judging round.
I’d like to say that experience taught me some perspective. My life didn’t end, my book made it into print three years later, and our house is still standing. Rejections, though, can still send me into a tailspin. Not as dramatic, maybe, but it happens.
We live and learn. I still have plenty to learn.