Fail better

Tuesday, June 21, 2016
By: 
Lee Kofman

Photo of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

WV resident blogger Lee Kofman wrestles with every writers' greatest, and most persistent fear – failure. 


Recently I came across an intriguing quote about the nature of artistic process by William Bailey, a noted visual artist. Apparently he said: ‘I believe that every painter is in a state of continual failure.’ At first I was puzzled, particularly because Bailey himself is a great success. But the more I contemplated Bailey’s words the more I realised he has a point – failure must be intrinsic to any attempt at making art. Isn’t it all about trial and error, groping in the dark, and then putting our creations, ourselves really, out to public judgement? Such a way of working lends itself to failure all too easily. Now that I think about it, Bailey articulated precisely how I felt during the five years of writing my most recent book, ‘The Dangerous Bride’, a memoir about non-monogamy – that I was writing in a state of continual failure.

Often when memoirists are praised, it’s more for their supposed bravery and candour than for the quality of their writing. I find this attitude irritating. It’s as if memoir writing is foremost a therapeutic activity, or an Oprah-style confession, rather than the making of art. But perhaps my irritability is tinted by subjective sensitivity, because I see myself as rather a coward. During the years I was writing my book, I found myself constantly, meekly, apologising for my choice of topic. And what is such cowardice if not a form of failure?

Before I began this memoir, I knew non-monogamy was a taboo, even in these permissive times. But I didn’t realise to what extent this was true until I started talking to people about what I was doing. Many of my normally open-minded friends raised their eyebrows at my project. One friend, usually a super-liberal person, pursed her lips when I told her I was writing about non-monogamy. ‘Who got time for such things?’ She genuinely wondered. When couples she knew had spare time, she said, they did environmental activism. Was she implying that non-monogamists were all climate change deniers…?

This response was perhaps extreme, but, with some exceptions, the consensus seemed to be that my topic wasn’t worthy. At best it was seen as too light, perhaps even comical, and frivolous. I should have been writing about child abuse, historical accounts of convicts, the diminishing numbers of polar bears, or – if I really must be a self-centred memoirist – I should tell the story of my parents who had been dissidents in the Soviet Union.

These are all worthy topics, of course, but unfortunately none of them inspired me back then. Writing is like sexual passion: you can’t sensibly choose what to be attracted to. It was about love that I wanted to write, and my version of love was a crooked, unacceptable one. So I became secretive about my book. So secretive that it took me five months of dating before I told my now-husband what I was writing about. And that revelation almost cost me our relationship, both because of the topic and the delay in revealing it. It seemed that in my writing I’d failed my husband too.

Yet I mostly felt like a failure when I was alone with my book. I did have those inspired, blissful times when all I cared about was the language, how to turn life into art, but they were interspersed with great anxiety. I worried I wasn’t adequately representing the people I interviewed and that my portrayal of my previous husband would hurt him. And I knew how much neither of my husbands wanted me to write this book. Eventually, my anxiety escalated so that every time I sat down to write, I felt the room was crowded, haunted by ghosts of the people I was writing about and they were all telling me that I didn’t get them – that I had used them. In short, I worried I was, pardon me, full of shit.

Still, I pressed on, because I knew I couldn’t write anything else before I finished this story. To explore my entanglement with non-monogamy meant also exploring a larger conflict that had tormented me all my life in various ways: my desire for both security AND for risktaking. This book was burning inside me. And, as Satan in my favourite novel ‘The Master and Margarita’ says, manuscripts never burn down to complete annihilation. Neither did mine. Eventually it materialised into a three-dimensional object with a commercial barcode.

I thought at least that once the book was published, my feeling of failure would vanish. Indeed, in the first months after publication, once it became clear no one was planning to stone me for adultery, it did. Neither the readers nor the critics, to my surprise, judged my topic as unworthy (at least to my knowledge), and the reviews, while inevitably calling my memoir ‘brave’, also focused on its artistic aspects.

But I didn’t rest on my laurels for long. Once the initial rush of publication subsided and the long-tail promotional activities began, failure seemed to be lurking in every corner. It was just that now it looked different, tinted with a vomit-y hue of envy-green. Yes, the book was received well, but it wasn’t shortlisted for awards; in one particular festival my panel was on Thursday and not the weekend; I didn’t sell as many books as that other writer I know and dislike did… This went on and on until I actually began to miss my previous state of failure. I might change my mind later, but this is how I feel now.

‘I hope you suffer prettily in Paris,’ somebody said to Djuna Barnes upon her arrival in that city. I like this quote, because it reminds me that there is suffering and there is suffering, and this applies to suffering failure too. This is what I want and dread now, as I am about to dive into my next book-long project: a ‘pretty’ sense of failure, when you worry about the quality and validity of your work, not the superficial stuff of book promotion. I do realise that my anxiety around ‘The Dangerous Bride’, as painful as it was, also generated some energy which was actually conducive to my creative process. I felt as if I was writing against everyone, as if my book and I were comrades in our struggle against the Big Bad World. I felt the heat of inspiration at the tips of my fingers as I was typing back then, even if my hands were unsteady with fear.

In retrospect, that suffering, paradoxically, made the way I approached my work healthier. It kept me on my toes. The tension generated made the book feel urgent to me, and I hope some of this urgency seeped into the writing itself as well. Maybe this was why Beckett advised writers to fail again, and to fail better. Perhaps, whether we like it or not, a certain type of failure is intrinsic to gaining some writerly success. So I wish you many glorious failures.   

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is an author of four books, including the memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’ (Melbourne University Press), and co-editor of ‘Rebellious Daughters’ (Ventura Press), an anthology of memoir by prominent Australian writers. Her short works have been widely published in Australia, UK, Scotland, Israel, Canada and US, including in ‘Best Australian Stories’ and ‘Best Australian Essays’. Her blog was a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014. More information at leekofman.com.au