If you’re a writer . . . scratch that . . . if you’re any kind of creative person sitting at your desk in your metaphorical attic, then your days are tinted by whatever colour you give to failure.
As Richard Flanagan says what a writer needs above all “is a mad courage to overcome the fear of failure we all have”. And he’s captured the world’s heart and won the Booker Prize so how much greater is this challenge for the most of us?
But the cold truth is that it’s not just a fear, it’s a reality. We all do fail over and over and over. The path to success is paved with failure.
I used to work as a Foreign Correspondent creating stories, albeit factual ones, and there was a whole structure around me. Every day I had to produce, or I didn’t get paid. And every day I got feedback on my work which meant every day I built my creative muscle and grew that bit taller and that bit wider. So my failures were just part of the river that flowed inevitably towards the grand and open sea.
When you leave those structures and head off into the wilds of novel writing, you’re largely on your own and the howling of that wolf gets a lot louder in all that isolation.
So the colour you give failure is the critical difference between life and death as a writer: do I write on or do I hang up my quill?
How you come at rejection is dependent on what you understand success to be as a writer.
For me, the success or the energy of writing is in connection.
I’m in a writer’s group where there are writers who have no interest in publishing. Their success is in the practice of writing. And I get it. I also love the satisfaction I feel in the actual act of writing by connecting to my inner beings and to what Paolo Coello named the Soul of the World in The Alchemist.
But for me, a critical part of success is also about connecting with readers. This means my work has to connect with agents, publishers, marketers, publicists, booksellers, book critics, podcast reviewers, Tik Tok and Good Reads aficionados if ever it is to reach a wide readership.
So I’ve worked hard to brighten the sad, bad colour I gave to failure. Now, instead of ‘I failed’, I tell myself that I am one of the brave ones. Instead of ‘I’m not good enough’ when another “NO” slips into my mailbox, I reframe it to it ‘wasn’t not my true path’.
And crucially, I go back to deepening my craft, draft after draft. I go to classes to open up new possibilities in my work and I workshop with my writing colleagues. Thank the goddess for them.
And above all I remind myself of why I’m driven to do this mad thing in the wilderness.
Despite my childhood passion for Nancy Drew, like many writers of crime these days, it’s not the who dunnit which drives me, but the larger question of ‘how the hell did it happen?’
As Denise Mina says crime fiction is the fiction of social history, or in my terms, who’s doing what to who in hidden places. The crime writing I’m driven to write is all about bringing the light to those dark places.
And I write to get in deeper to this thing we call life during these few cycles around the sun that are given to us.
I write to see the shimmer around things as Joan Didion calls it.
I write to connect to myself, to others, to the world.
So like all creative people daring and failing to spin gold from straw I strive to find ways to tame that wolf of failure, and to go forward, as Richard Flanagan says – in terror, smiling!