In an unequal world where we are encouraged to monetise every aspect of our lives, do we need to redefine what ‘failure’ really is? And maybe consider that sometimes – often, even – it might actually be a good and necessary thing?
As you can tell from how often I’ve updated this blog over the past while, one of the main things I have let slide over the pandemic is marketing my books. This is for a whole host of reasons many of you will be familiar with. My freelancing fell off a cliff in 2020, taking my income, energy and motivation with it, and the last two years have been a long, slow and often difficult haul to get back onto an even keel. My focus, out of necessity, has been rebuilding my business and my finances, and anything that wasn’t immediately related to that was pushed firmly onto the back burner.
In common with many people, I also found the crisis made me rethink my priorities. In a system so clearly and comprehensively broken, what did I want my life to look like? With menopause barrelling towards me and middle age firmly arrived, who did I want to be for this next phase of my life?
Inevitably, looking forward involves a fair amount of looking back – not always a comfortable process. And one of the things I’ve obviously been thinking about is my creative writing career. What it gives me, what it costs, and whether those two things are balancing in a way that serves my life.
Failure with a capital F
These are my first two books, the novel Doll and collection of short stories, No Love is This. First published by a small indie press in 2005 and 2006 respectively, they were, by most objective measures, failures. They did not land me a spot on the bestseller lists. They did not make me welcome into the closed cultural circles of the London literati. They did not make me rich, earn me a legion of fans, or open up a world of exciting opportunities. All of which, I admit, I very much would have liked them to.
And yet, and yet… When I look at what they did give me, I can’t help but feel that ‘failure’ isn’t exactly a fair description.
For a start, it’s all too easy for me to forget – as someone who has been regularly published in magazines and anthologies since my teens and still does a steady stream of online and print work – that for many writers, getting published at all, even by a small print press that makes you almost no money, is a dream come true, and not something I should casually dismiss.
And while the books didn’t make me a literary darling, they did help build a number of meaningful relationships that, 17 years later, still mean a huge amount to me. It was because I’d written Doll I attended a Woman in Publishing meet-up in a South London pub where I met Caroline Goldsmith, who was to become both the collaborator that helped birth the Dark Dates series that meant so much to me, but also one of my closest and most beloved friends.
They did also often open opportunities for me, even if I was too nervous, self-sabotaging or crippled by imposter syndrome to take full advantage of them. I was invited to do a talk to a packed hall of readers at a Bookcrossing convention and sold out of books in two minutes flat because I totally failed to think anyone would be interested in my work – so I allowed what should have been an exhilarating experience to feel like a lost opportunity. (I’ve since reframed this into recognising what a great thing it was, but Lordy, that took a while…)
They also proved to me that while my books might not be racing up the bestseller lists, they were capable of connecting with readers. I still have people who can recount the plots of stories from No Love to me, nearly two decades later, or tell me how much Doll impacted them. This gave me the confidence to write more stories.
Being published by a small press meant none of the editorial or marketing support larger publishers provide, but it also meant I learned early to take control of the process – a skill that came in handy when I started indie publishing.
You can’t control life – and that’s not a failing
It was also a hard lesson that sometimes, you simply can’t control events. Shit happens that is nothing to do with you, and you just have to be grateful you came out the other end alive. No Love had a fancy book launch (paid for by me) at a gallery owned by my at-the-time boss – and I can honestly say it was one of the best nights of my life. But Doll… well, I was living in London when that was published – on July 7, 2005. There’s nothing like spending the day frantically trying to contact friends to make sure they weren’t caught up in a terrorist attack to put any literary endeavours in perspective.
There’s also that fact that, had things worked out the way I hoped then, I wouldn’t be where I am now – and I kinda like where that is. Had I been able to afford to stay in London, I wouldn’t have moved to Brighton, where I spent 5 lovely years by the sea. Had I not been priced out of Brighton, I would never have moved back to Newcastle – where I re-established meaningful connections with friends and family that mean the world to me, a place in the local theatre scene where I feel I can have a genuine impact, and am surrounded by the kind of support that saw me through the pandemic in a way that I would have struggled to cope without. Had I been a sell-out success with my attempts at contemporary fiction, I would likely not have veered into romcoms and vampire stories, which have turned out to be much more my lane, as well as a source of joy and pride to me that I wouldn’t have missed out for anything.
A damaging narrative
I have lots of friends who are creatives, and I think we have a damaging narrative around what counts as success and failure, one that too often fails to take into account the fact that the arts in this country are a classist, ageist, opaque and unequal field freighted with wealth and privilege. Is that person making theatre full-time really ‘successful’, or just rich and well-connected with a bunch of high-profile mates lauding their work on Twitter? Have you really ‘failed’ if Covid insecurity drove you out of the arts into different employment, or if you have to write books / plays / do illustrations as a side hustle for Ko-fis and kudos alongside a ‘real’ job? In those instances, we should be looking at the system as failing, not individuals. Having a day job does not mark you out as someone ‘not good enough’ to make it. Just someone without the resource to do it full time.
This ‘winners never quit, quitters never win’ hustle narrative also doesn’t take into account the fact that we don’t always want the same things forever. If you spent ten years as an actor then decided to jack it in to raise a family, or only do it part time as a side-line to more secure work, does that count as ‘not making it’? As ‘quitting’? Or, instead, as simply recognising that at different times of our lives we have different needs and priorities and we change as we accommodate those.
I’m not saying there aren’t regrets, or that it was always easy. I could have done without all those years of being skint, and certainly without those months of being homeless. I could have done without – and to be fair, still could do without – the insecurity and self-doubt that even now every so often has me questioning my talents and life choices. I’m not saying that if wealth and success arrived on my doorstep tomorrow, I’d say no thanks. And I’m certainly not saying that we don’t need a thorough shake up of the arts in this country, one that prioritises talent over privilege and allows much fairer access at every level. (But that’s both well-trodden ground for me, and too long for this post).
But equally, I’ve found that with a little reframing and a fresh perspective, an awful lot of regrets and resentment fade away, and ‘failure’ becomes just another step on the journey – steps I’m not sure I could have moved forward without.