More on failure

Tuesday, July 19, 2016
By: 
Lee Kofman

Photo of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

Recently I blogged about the importance of failure for writers, arguing that failure is (unfortunately) an intrinsic and healthy part of the writing process. In my experience, feeling like I was a failure while I wrote my last book generated tension that I found conducive to deepening my work. This post resonated with some as I received quite a few moving responses. I realised that there are dimensions to the relationship between writing and failure that go beyond my own story. So I asked five authors, differing in voice and genre, about their experiences of failure and whether they get anything out of it – apart from heartache.

Writer and poet Alicia Sometimes does. She thinks publishers’ rejections – the most obvious writing failure – can teach us a thing or two about the craft of writing:

A friend once said to me, ‘Far better to have a wonderful poem rejected than a crap one accepted.’ This aphorism has been clinking around my head since I first heard it. Symbolist poet Paul Valéry is often cited by writers: ‘A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.’ So how often do we feel confident that what we send out to the world is wonderful? With me it is rarely. I edit, re-edit, add in many more edits and then I ponder. Sometimes too much.

Then the acute pain of rejection when I see the words: ‘We had a great deal of submissions. Unfortunately…’ That word: ‘Unfortunately’. You don’t want to read on. But you should. Mostly you can’t garner any more from whoever rejects you. Sometimes you can, and I encourage (only when offered) the gumption of asking why your piece wasn’t suitable. Lessons can be learnt. Every rejection means you fine-tune: shortening sentences, adding complexities, finding the heart of the story, cutting useless words, strengthening your pace. I am so glad I was rejected for so many poems that went on to have stronger lives. A few times poems that were rejected by someone who was never going to pay much for them went on to win some money. In all cases, when the poems are delivered back with ‘unfortunately’ I do re-assess and I get to make them the best I can.

Sometimes though, particularly when we are at the start of our writing lives, the pain of rejection can overwhelm common sense and the feeling of failure can be so pervasive that it can stop us from writing all together. After Jenny Ackland’s first-ever submission was rejected, the novelist ceased writing for 18 years:

In 1990 I submitted a travel story to ‘The Age’. They didn’t take it and this made me think that I’d never get published. I didn’t submit anything again for years. I now wish someone had taken me in hand, firmly, and said ‘Just keep going.’ I remember thinking that because my piece wasn’t accepted, it meant my writing wasn’t any good and therefore would never be any good. The first part of that sentence was true; the second, well, it doesn’t automatically follow and it’s a default emotion that we need to challenge. Fast-forward to 2008 and I started to have a stronger desire to get back to creative writing, and began working on a novel. This time, though, I knew it would take a lot of learning. I wanted to be published and that would mean making myself vulnerable through more submissions.

Fortunately, Ackland’s newfound resolve resulted in the publication of her 2015 novel ‘The Secret Son’. Another debutant novelist, Portland Jones, whose ‘Seeing the Elephant’ was just published, offers a beautiful analogy about training horses and words to obey you:

My partner and I are horse trainers by trade and our failures hurt. Horses are 600kg of instinct and muscle and I tell myself that I’d far rather fail on the page than in the saddle. But I don’t know. The night before the launch of my novel I dreamed I stood naked and stuttering on a stage watching the words run across my page of notes like insects, too fast to read.

When I lie across the back of a young horse for the first time I can feel its heart beating. It’s tempting to pre-empt failure and look for the softest place to land. The same is true of writing. The thin, hard seam of truth that you mine for words is the deep and most secret part of yourself. There is never a soft landing, there is always risk.

Horses may buck and people may remain indifferent to your words but these are the risks we take, because failing is a far better option than a life lived without risk – which is not much of a life at all.

Sometimes failing to complete a book can make us better writers. When the memoirist Josiane Behmoiras (author of ‘Dora B’) decided to try her hand at writing fiction, she learned a thing or two about how to work in this genre through failure:

Once upon a time I started writing a novel that was inspired by the image of a woman walking in the Australian bush in a dystopian, uncertain future. For 'the conflict', I made that woman unintentionally check into a community of women practicing ‘intentional living’. It took me months of first-chapter drafting and imaginary rolling-on-the-floor-in-tears before I asked myself what I was trying to do, which, I concluded, wasn't much. I ditched my writing project (forever). That failure taught me that a novel may indeed start with a persisting image, but before that floating image can be articulated within a narrative, it should be anchored with ideas and developed into a concept. And a loose story skeleton on which to drape all the above can be handy too, before I enter the ghost-tunnel of novel writing.

Rochelle Siemienowicz, author of the memoir ‘Fallen’, made the opposite leap to that of Behmoiras (from fiction to memoir). She regrets not being braver at garnering failures:

It feels like a curse to write about my failures, as if by looking them directly in the eye they’ll overpower me. But as any mythic hero will tell you, demons must be faced to be vanquished. My most obvious writing failure came when I finished my first novel in 2006 and sent it off to the Vogel Prize and nothing happened. (Surprise!) Then it was rejected by both Giramondo and Scribe, whose editor at the time, Aviva Tuffield, wrote that the work wasn’t compelling enough, and its coming-of-age themes were unconvincingly executed. Three misses and I gave up.

I didn’t touch the work for many years until my writers’ group encouraged me to play with it again. Finally, in 2015, a new version was published (by Affirm Press) as memoir. Aviva was even my commissioning editor. (We never mentioned the earlier draft.) This sounds like a success story, but really it’s an admission of my failure to risk rejection in all those intervening years. I look back at how easily I was crushed, how quickly I lost heart, and wish I had more brave failures to recount.

As these different stories show, the conversation about the relationship between failure and writing is a rich and complex one. While some types of failure can snap the writer at the bud, others can be good for us – like a foul-tasting medicine. And if you feel like adding your own story, please leave your comment. I love to keep learning about failure.

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