Thursday, 8 September 2011

What If Failure Is All You Get?

Someone on Twitter asked "What if failure is all you get?" in response to my post on Three Cheers for Failure.

Our lives are not like the lives of characters in a book. We get born, stuff happens along the way, we die. We only put "The End" when it literally is "The End" - ie you're dead. You may have "failed" at 20, 30, 40, 50...but who's to know what's going to happen when you're 60 or 70?

I know several people who have first got published in their 60s and 70s - are they failures because it happened late to them? Or terrific success stories because they persisted?

I'm struggling to finish my current novel. Deadlines have come and gone and I still can't get the b****r done, which is probably suicidal in the current climate. Is that failure? Will, a couple of years down the line, I be laughing over the champagne as I read my amazing sales figures? Or will I be watching the clock to get to the end of my shift at the check out in Sainsbury's?

Who knows? It's likely to be somewhere in between - a recent programme on chaos theory said that it was impossible to predict what you'd be doing 5 years ahead, even if your life looked ultra stable and solid now. You may be "failing" at the moment, but if an acceptance letter or phone call arrived in the next 5 minutes, you'd consider yourself a success.

Stop focussing on the end, because it won't be the end. Getting an acceptance will lead to more problems to be solved, more failure, more success. It's a bit like being pregnant and only preparing for the delivery. Wake up! You've got the baby around for at least the next 20 years, more if you're unlucky (or house prices continue to rise).

Enjoy the journey, even when it's tough and hard going. Failure and success are only words, they're not states of being and the ending is only the ending when it really is The End. There's plenty of time for living until then.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Sarah, this is a good lesson about mindset and can be applied to all kinds of things as well as writing.

Ann Patey

JO said...

Failure is such a loaded word. It smacks of school. Of all those red crosses in my maths books. Of forgetting the French for hat in my 'o' level oral.

I think we carry that childhood definition of success and failure for far too long. Surely it's not as clear-cut as that. I have an unpublished novel lurking on my computer. Does that make me a failure? No - it just means my novel wasn't good enough. But I still wrote the thing - there are millions of people who might not get that far.

If we spend all our lives trying to pass those tests, keep the teachers happy, we lose sight of the fun we can have in our efforts to keep the show in the road.

Susie Medwell said...

Great post. My life has changed so much over the past few years in terms of security, but surely unpredictable is better than boring? Following our dreams might be risky, but challenging ourselves is what life is all about...oh and getting up again after each knock back! Life should be a journey not an end state - we accept that as kids, then forget it as adults. Thanks Sarah, love it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Everything is relative. It depends why you write. If you write to earn a crust then it’s hard to place artistic integrity over producing something that people will want to buy. I’m not disparaging jobbing authors here, it’s simply a fact of life. History is full of writers, artists and composers some, like Charles Ives, one of the most innovative composers of the twentieth century, who was a successful businessman and could write what he damn well pleased, or Joseph Haydn who spent much of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Esterh├ízy family on their remote estate and was therefore dependent on them; if they didn’t like what he wrote then he was out on his ear.

I sometimes feel like a failure. I consider my age and look at where many of my contemporaries are – I’m only a couple of weeks older than Jeanette Winterson – and I can’t help but feel disappointed with the decisions I made as a young man. I was a good boy, got a job, paid the bills, always did my duty; I gained respect and love but fame, not so much, and certainly not financial success. Throughout those years though I doggedly wrote works that were important to me because I didn’t know what else to write. Now I have a respectable body of work but no energy to go after a book deal – just thinking about that side of the business makes me tired – and so I do what I can with what skills I have. So it’s still a little hard not to think that here I am failing all over again. You just have to shrug is off and get on with it. All it needs is for a copy of one of my books to fall into the right hands.

Sarah Duncan said...

Ann - yes, it's the same for everything, not just writing.

JO - I agree, a lot of people get their awareness of failure from school, often from a particular teacher or subject, and then we carry that into the rest of our lives.

Susie - what I say to myself is I might get run over by a bus tomorrow, so I've got to get on with living today.

Jim - yup, it's certainly harder to be creative if the bailiff is pounding on the door! I think it's the nature of humankind to look back and see all the "mistakes" we made when younger, the "bad" decisions. If I had my time again etc. Every life has its ups and downs - even Jeanette Winterson's! - just we only see the shiny surface of other people's lives.

mplanck said...

Several months ago I was watching a BBC program (Masterpiece?) about a writer turned away from his publisher's office and reminded that his last novel came out in 1945; the now elderly man sits in his poverty-level flat and writes in his diary: "Maybe I peaked too soon." I had to laugh, not because I wasn't sympathetic, but only days before I had mused that I had peaked too late. I'm 73 now and just had my 3rd book in 3 years published. Alice

Sarah Duncan said...

Alice - Wow, congratulations! That's brilliant, proof that it's never too late. So encouraging for everyone. Hooray!

BTW Was that from the TV adaptation of Any Human Heart?

Derek said...