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Fail Again. Fail Better.

A meditation on failure

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I‘ve lost count of the times I’ve failed. At school I was labelled a failure, made to stand on a chair with my hands on my head after I got bad marks in a test, or gave the wrong answer. In college I was told to drop biology because the teacher thought me unteachable, completely shattering my dream of becoming a nurse. As an adult, graduating into a triple-dip recession, I struggled to find work. Even after my first book came out, I had to sign on. I’ve failed by every measure of our society again and again. This is why I think it’s important to talk about failure. We tend to build a narrative that failure will define us, or that it only exists before success, as if life is a linear path to the top of the mountain. But what if failure shapes our lives as much as our successes do?

If my early failures taught me anything it was that life is filled with challenge and uncertainty. That sometimes failure is a way of taking us onto another path. I think this in some way helped me become a writer. Because, like failure, writing a novel is a descent into the unknown. To be able to create anything we must embrace the uncertainties, the unanswered questions. Will this story come together? Will this turn into a story that I want to tell? Will this be a story people want to read?

It also helps armour us for the inevitable rejections that come with a creative life. We have all heard famous writers tell stories of horrible rejections and the reviews that haunt them. C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, faced 800 rejections before his first publication. Joanne Harris, author of the million-copy-selling Chocolat, made a sculpture out of the rejection letters she received. Stephen King famously pinned his rejection letters onto his wall with a single nail. ‘The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.’

I have my own story too. The first ever literary rejection I received was so unvarnished in its criticism that the literary agent concluded I ‘should not write for children’. I wish I could say I pinned that email to the wall, used it to propel myself forward like Stephen King, but I didn’t. I put my book away and stopped writing. It wasn’t until much later that same novel went on to be published and win awards. But even then, I made hardly any money, and it was four years and two more books before I saw any royalties. This is the reality — even when we reach our goals, we still face setbacks and hardships. Because life is never as simple as the stories we tell ourselves.

The spectre of failure looms over us all, despite success or achievement. Jessie Burton, whose debut novel The Miniaturist sold over a million copies, became deeply depressed afterwards. ‘When something you have made in private is mass-consumed, the irony is that the magnifying glass burns even brighter on you as an individual.’ The pressure to prove herself, to live up to the story we project onto successful people, was unfamiliar and, briefly, crippling. ‘Failure was my friend much longer than success had been. I knew its rhythms, had adapted my step to its jolting gait.’

Most writers I know face this same moment of doubt after each book comes out; how do I do this again? Can I do this again? After every novel I have had a period of horrible, crippling, soul-shattering writer’s block. This fear of failure, rooted back in those schooldays where I stood on a chair, hands on my head, because I couldn’t answer the teachers’ questions, has paralysed me. It has led to times of real despair, even a period where I stopped reading because I found it too stressful.

This year I decided to change that. I decided to revaluate my relationship with failure. I decided to try and embrace it. I began doing things that I knew I would be terrible at. I went to a roller-skating disco, and as a person with coordination issues, I fell — a lot. In the end, an old lady and two children had to help me off the rink as Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ chorus played unironically over the sound system: ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again. / You are never gonna keep me down…’.

I swapped my digital camera for a temperamental Polaroid. Half my photos come out blurred, undeveloped brown edges creeping across the image. At best I can say they are charmingly unfocussed, or eclectically impressionistic. There are no do-overs with film, no filters, no editing. You get a moment where the light is good, click and hope for the best. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had with a camera.

I began drawing again too. There was a time I wasn’t bad at art. It was one of the few things I enjoyed at school and between the ages of four and twelve I filled notebooks, drawing pads, even my bedroom wall with portraits and strange otherworldly landscapes. In fact, the first thing I ever had published was a comic strip in The Times. But as a self-conscious adult, I realise I have no sense of proportion or technique. Nobody will be hanging the pictures I draw in my life-drawing class. But once a week I get to spend an hour with a group of strangers looking at the incredible shapes a naked body makes.

Making a living from the thing I used to do for fun made it joyless. Deadlines loomed and money and contracts dictated the things I created. Reviews, awards, and sales became a measure of success and worth. This created pressure to achieve some level of unattainable perfection, that froze me before I even wrote a word. This was the core of my writer’s block — the fear, the self-doubt. But in embracing my childhood passions of drawing and photography with no expectations, I have started to reconnect with myself. Through my bad photographs and paintings, I have been able to find the core of why I create. For me it has always been a way to try and understand the world. My drawings and pictures have always been more about shape, mood and feeling, than about subject. My writing has always been about people rather than events. My work has always been a way to connect with myself and others. Perfectionism has no part in that process.

No book I’ve read recently understands the challenges of creative block more than The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, a guided programme to help struggling creatives connect with their inner artist. Cameron’s book encourages you to embrace creativity without judgment. To connect with your inner child. To explore creativity without expectations. The book suggests beginning with three pages of free-writing every morning. I struggled with this at first, making excuses to put it off, skipping days and starting over again because I was secretly scared that my bad writing would mean something terrible about me. But over the past couple of weeks, I have given in to it. Yesterday I wrote seven hundred words on how I’m afraid of bees. The day before I wrote an essay arguing that tea is better than coffee. But my favourite piece must be the diatribe I wrote on the confusing etiquette of how to prepare yourself before a smear test. I do not expect a Pulitzer on my horizon for any of these essays, but in this process of allowing myself to fail, I am learning new things, making different decisions and, dare I say it, having much more fun.

I am writing my novel again too. I say this quietly, hoping I don’t jinx it. Every day I battle with the blank page, the fear of failure, that reach into the unknown. To help with this, I have set myself this one and only rule: to live with whatever I put on the page. No deleting, no rewrites, until I have completed that chapter. And, like magic, there are sentences and pages beginning to form. Some of them may even make it to the next draft.

I can’t say that I’m not still haunted by the fear of failure. I don’t think I will ever be completely at peace with it. But I will frame my bad photos and hang my bad pictures. I will even keep some of my clumsy words. And I hope, when I inevitably fail again, that I will let that failure take me somewhere new, if only I will allow it.

Amber Lee Dodd is an award-winning children’s author and short-story writer. Her children’s novels have been translated into several languages and her short fiction has been published internationally and performed on BBC Radio 4. She is currently working on her first novel for adults.

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