This week, we're bringing you a mini-series on 'balance', which we think is a central concept for sustainable writing practice. Today's post from Ryan O'Neill considers how failure can be constructive, and essential to finding balance.
Image source: Flickr CC / amboo213
I don’t know whether being a short story writer has given me any special insight into failure, but it has certainly made me comfortable with the idea. A novelist can go years without having a rejection, simply because it takes longer to write a novel. But a short story writer can easily have one or two rejections every week, and once the first fifty or sixty are out of the way, they become easier to face. That’s not to say though that rejection and failure are the same thing. I consider some stories I’ve had published to be failures because they didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, while a couple of stories that have been rejected everywhere I think of as successes because I accomplished what I set out to do with them. For me, being a writer is intimately associated with the idea of failure. I’ve always been a little suspicious of writers who seem very happy with their work, or who consider it entirely successful, though perhaps it isn’t suspicion at all; perhaps it’s envy.
My earliest memory of writing, though, is associated with success, and not failure. In primary school, I wrote a story using the characters from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and the teacher gave me a gold star to put on the wall chart beside my name. I remember being embarrassed and pleased and strangely ashamed all at the same time, a mixture of feelings I still experience today when someone says something nice about my writing. I continued writing throughout primary school, secondary school and university, and eventually started submitting stories to literary journals. In those days you could tell instantly if a story had been rejected by the thickness of the stamped, self-addressed envelope returned to you. If it was bulky it contained it contained your story and was a rejection, if thin it might be an acceptance. Or at least that’s what I assumed, as none of my stories were accepted.
In 2005, after several years living and working in different countries, I emigrated from Scotland to Australia. I had a few stories saved up from my years of travelling, and I submitted one to Meanjin. This was my very first Australian submission, and to my astonishment it was accepted almost immediately. “I’ve finally cracked it!” I thought. And then came two straight years of rejections. I began to think that the Meanjin story would represent the high point of my writing, and that I’d never write anything as good as that story again, and never get published again. I was filled with more self-doubt by that one success than by all my failures before it.
One of the rejection slips I received during that time said that my story had “massively overcomplicated a simple premise.” Another was more concise: “In a word, no.” As rejection followed rejection I started to second-guess myself, and for a while I considered tailoring my stories to what I thought editors wanted to read, rather than what I wanted to write. But finally I decided that if I was going to fail, I’d rather fail on my own terms than someone else’s, and I tried to see success not in terms of publication, but in terms of accomplishing what I had set out to do with a particular story. With that realisation, one of my stories was accepted by Westerly, and the drought was over.
Since that time I’ve been lucky enough (and luck plays a huge part in publishing, but that’s another story) to have my stories appear in a number of literary journals and anthologies, and to have a collection published here and abroad that was shortlisted for a couple of prizes. I’ve enjoyed more success as a writer than I ever thought possible, and I’m enormously grateful for that success. It’s wonderful when people read and enjoy your work, and when you get a nice review. In fact, the only thing that a measure of literary success doesn’t make better is your writing. When something you write is a success, you can’t learn from it. You can try to repeat exactly what made it work, but you will probably fail, and even if you do succeed, you will be writing to formula.
Failure is what makes you a better writer. If you don’t fail from time to time then that means you aren’t pushing yourself. All of the successes I’ve had have been built on my failures; the stories that were finished and didn’t quite work, the stories that refused to cohere, the abandoned stories, the stories that are plain embarrassing to look back on. It took me a long time to realise these were not dead ends, but avenues leading to other ways of telling stories. A failure only becomes a dead end when you don’t learn from it. Many people have written a terrible, unpublishable first novel, fewer have written an awful second novel, mediocre third, average fourth. Only those who keep going past their failures become writers. Behind every good book are five bad books. Failing is not what prevents you from becoming a writer. Failing is what makes you a writer.
Writing is a tough, lonely occupation. Success, whether it is in the form of a publication, or a shortlisting, or a prize, or a good review is rare, and should be celebrated when it happens. But focussing too much on success means a writer is not thinking about what they are doing, which may or may not work, but what they have done, which did work. The saying goes that you shouldn’t dwell on failure, but it is equally important not to dwell on success. No piece of writing is perfect; all writing, even the most critically and commercially successful, fails in some way. No one knew this better than Samuel Beckett, who wrote “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It took me a long time to realise that writing is not about success; it is the art of failing better.
Ryan O'Neill's short story collection, 'The Weight of a Human Heart' is published by Black Inc. He lives on a property in rural NSW.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.