Friday, 2 September 2011

Three Cheers for Failure

A friend of mine is trying to move from journalism into fiction.  He's a very talented writer: I love what I've read of his work.  He's aiming high and wants to be a Booker prize contender, which is a fine ambition.  The trouble is, his ambition is preventing him from moving forward.  

He has problems finishing work, endlessly re-writing and editing.  When a short story is finished he won't send it anywhere - he says doesn't want to send it to competitions because there might be issues over copyright should he want to publish a short story collection later on. He also worries that he hasn't yet found his voice.  He tries different styles, different genres.  He destroys a lot of what he writes.  He researches agents and publishers, but somehow never finds one that is suitable for his work - he tells me that it's very important to start as you mean to go on and the wrong agent or publisher can kill your career before it starts.  Well, yes, but... 

What it amounts to is some beautiful writing which only gets read by a select few (I am now off his reading list after I ventured some criticism).  I think it's great when writers write just for themselves - but this writer is ambitious.  He wants to be launched in a blaze of glory. He doesn't want to follow the ordinary path, or so he says.  

I suspect he doesn't send out because at heart he is frightened of failure.  He has set his sights so high that he will be very lucky indeed to succeed.  Ambition is a good thing, but it can also cripple you.  Easier to say 'I'm not ready' than risk being turned down.  

But failure is part of any creative endeavour.  Without failure we can't judge our strengths and weaknesses.  Without failure we won't grow.  Without failure we stay in the same place and stagnate.  Failure means development.  If a writer gets 99 rejections but an acceptance on the 100th, is that writer a success or a failure?  A success even though if they'd given up at 98 they would have been a failure.

I believe that we are all on the same road.  Sometimes we move faster or slower than others.  Sometimes we get a lucky break and jump a section, sometimes we go through bad times and slip backwards.  Luck plays a big part, as does hard work.  If you fail - that is, get a rejection - then you slip back a bit, but you only come off the road if you stop writing and stop trying to move forward.  


JO said...

Was it Dylan Thomas you said, fail once, try again and fail better? It's the only way our writing can grow.

Chris Stovell said...

Very pertinent! Getting Book One published nearly crippled me as I wrote Book 2! I'm currently just trying to relax as I work on the revisions!

Sarah Duncan said...

JO - It's a Samuel Beckett quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” I was going to use it, along with some quotes from Edison about failing was the only way to move forward.

Chris - But getting crippled, tearing your hair out, weeping etc are all vital parts in the process of writing surely.

Sally Zigmond said...

I couldn't agree more, Sarah. As the cliche goes, we learn from our mistakes. If you wait for perfection to drop through the letterbox you'll be waiting forever.

Jim Murdoch said...

I never dated a single girl while I was at school but I planned a lot. And the more I thought about it the more things I realised could go wrong and I determined I would contain myself until I was guaranteed success. Not a good plan. Is heartbreak worse than heartache? Not sure. Both hurt.

Tringyokel said...

I've always thought that true love is when you have made yourself vulnerable so that the object of your affection can hurt you and you are comfortable with the situation.

I've only recently realised that my darling creations need to be exposed to ridicule and rejection in order to grow.

Thanks for the thought provoking post.

Jen Black said...

Good thoughts but I can sympathise (a little, anyway) with the bloke! OTOH, it's hard to know where timidity tips over the line into arrogance, or what gives some people the confidence to send out submissions in multiples of twelve at a time

Belinda McCarthy said...

Failure is only achieved by giving up on your dream! If you're a creative, and you stop creating, then that's when you fail.

I'm not a writer, but a photographer, but the concept is essentially the same - most of us do what we do (writing, photographing, painting) not because we want to, but because something inside us knows that unless we create, we will never be truly ourselves. Sure, rejection is a bitter pill, but it's only failure in one very narrow meaning of the term - failing to get a deal with that particular agent or publishing house, surely? All interaction with other over our work helps us to grow and hone what we do, even if that interaction is a bit fat no'.

Aiming for perfection is a great objective, but who ever thinks they've achieved it? Surely part of doing what you do is always wanting to improve on your skills, your presentation, your story, your work next time around? If you think you've achieved perfection, where do you go from there?

womagwriter said...

My ambition is to win the lottery. However I hate the thought of buying a ticket then finding I chose the wrong numbers and haven't won anything. So I keep my money in my pocket and my dreams in my head.

Just like your writer friend.

Sarah Duncan said...

Sally - Absolutely. Perfection is a killer.

Jim - Aww. Perhaps you'd have had more success with the girls if you'd just jumped in and given it a go. Or got slapped.

Tringyokel - Very true. Also, to produce lots of darling creations so that the angst is diluted among many.

Jen - I know, I'm not unsympathetic to him. Sometimes our definitions of failure and success are very personal, but they can hamstring us too.

Belinda - You're so right. Someone once told me that they thought their work was perfect just as it was that completely silenced me. Who on earth ever thinks their work is perfect? Best it can be at that particular moment, yes, perfect, no.

Womagwriter - Ah yes, dreaming about the mega lottery win is something I'm v guilty of. But at least I do buy a ticket from time to time. It's a good analogy.