About 15 years ago, I promised a publisher I’d write a book called Suicide Assessment and Intervention for Social Workers. We signed a contract. And I wrote. For many hours, day and night, I wrote. For more than 200 pages, I wrote.
And then, inscrutably, words became boulders too heavy to push onto the page. I tried. I fretted. I cried. My mind itself felt like a boulder whenever I sat down at my computer to finish the book.
I was stuck.
It was May 2009, and the manuscript was due in September 2009. That’s OK, I thought. I’ll devote the entire summer to it. As a university professor, I blessedly have summers off. I hoped the imminent deadline would shake those boulders loose.
Two days before summer break started, I was driving a few blocks from home when a teenager driving toward me took a left turn. Before my foot could fully stomp on the brake, a white plume engulfed me, then deflated just as quickly. Everything happened so quickly – the crash, the airbag, the pain – that, for a few moments, I wasn’t certain what had happened. All I knew was that my hand hurt. Badly.
The teenager, whose car was now paused perpendicular to mine, ran to my car.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see you. Are you OK?”
Not entirely rational, I yelled, “You broke my hand! How am I going to finish my book this summer?”
That’s how badly this boulder of a book weighed on me. (Yes, everything was a boulder by now – the book, the words, my mind.)
At the ER, I learned my hand was in fact fractured. The publisher extended the deadline. Still, even after the cast came off, even after I’d finished physical therapy and could use all my fingers again, I couldn’t push that boulder. It truly was immoveable.
I was failing. As a journalist in my 20s, I’d met hundreds of deadlines. Not this time. And not any deadline, either – a book deadline.
Ever since I was a little girl and first used my dad’s manual typewriter, I wanted to write a book. When I’d announced my goal to my big sisters, they laughed. They were only kids themselves, so I don’t blame them for laughing at me, a 7 year old who’d learned to read only a year earlier declaring I’d write something hundreds of pages long. But their laughter resounded in my memory now. How silly – me, an author.
I let the editor know the book would never be. She didn’t castigate me. To the contrary, she was very kind. She mailed me a letter releasing me from the contract, and I was free. Sort of.
Shame over my failure simmered, and I stewed in it. The shame boiled over when, a couple weeks after I’d conceded defeat, someone in Japan emailed me about translating the book into Japanese. That’s when I discovered the publisher had prematurely listed the book for sale.
Now my failure was painfully public. Talk about imposter syndrome! I did a search online, and many dozens of online bookstores were selling the “book,” with me listed as the author.
“Out of stock,” some postings said.
“Unavailable,” said others.
I began the laborious process of repeatedly emailing and phoning the online bookstores to get the listings removed. Some people were quite stubborn:
“We don’t remove a book listing, even if the book is out of stock,” I was told.
“The book’s not out of stock,” I’d say. “It never existed.”
“But it has an ISBN number,” the person would say, referring to the International Standard Book Number that uniquely identifies every published book.
I asked the publisher to have the ISBN cancelled, and the listing slowly began disappearing from sites. Still, even now, 13 years later, a quick Google search brought up a few listings.
For a long time, I didn’t dare hope again to write a book. I knew the truth: I couldn’t do it.
Years after I abandoned that first book project, I went to lunch with a friend who happens to be a therapist. Chatting over Vietnamese food, I told her about a book I wished I could write. It would be a collection of practical tips for therapists who treat suicidal people. Unlike almost every other book on the topic, it would go beyond the basics of risk assessment and safety planning to actual techniques therapists could use to help someone with suicidal thoughts feel better and want to stay alive.
“What a terrific idea,” my friend said. “Why don’t you write it?”
I told her about my unfinished manuscript. “That proved I can’t write a book,” I said.
She looked resolutely into my eyes and said emphatically, like a coach speaking to an athlete, “Girl, you have to get over that!”
Though her voice was firm, she said it with a big smile, and I knew instantly she was right. I had to get over that.
I researched publishers and wrote an email to Routledge to see if my new book idea interested them. It did, and we soon signed a contract. The manuscript was due in two years.
This time, no boulders blocked my path, no deadlines were missed, no tears shed. In fact, this time I wrote too much. The publisher’s limit was 88,000 words, and my first draft had more than 130,000. I winnowed down 129 tips and techniques to 89, cutting almost 50,000 words in the process.
Voila, I’d written a book. An actual, completed book. (It also helped that I hired a coach the second time around, but that’s a story for a different blog post.)
In fall of 2017, Routledge published Helping the Suicidal Person: Tips and Techniques for Professionals. The book’s done well, and the editor has asked me to write a second edition.
I hope to update the book at some point, but I also have other books inside me. Last month, New Harbinger published my second book, Loving Someone with Suicidal Thoughts: What Family, Friends, and Partners Can Say and Do. And I’m working on two more books: a memoir about my personal experiences with suicidality, and a book directly for suicidal people themselves.
For years, that first unfinished book haunted me. Now, I see the wisdom in quitting it: Despite what I thought then, the idea for that book wasn’t very good.
Still an untenured assistant professor at the time, when I signed the contract I hadn’t worked clinically in almost 10 years. Starting a part-time psychotherapy practice a few years later made me remember how much professionals working with suicidal clients need concrete tools, not ivory-tower theories and an interminably long list of research citations.
I’m profoundly grateful the book I first proposed never came into existence. The book I ended up writing is far better.
Did I know, on some level? That is, did my mind refuse to finish the first idea because some part of me knew I’d regret it?
I believe so. Like that metaphorical boulder, my inner wisdom blocked my path to authoring an embarrassingly inferior, out-of-touch book.
Not all failures are good, of course. Not all failures contain a gift. But sometimes, what seems like failure is actually success at averting a regrettable mistake — and doing something better, instead.
©Stacey Freedenthal 2023. Top photo by Tasha Lyn on Unsplash.