The Secret to My Lack of Success or How I Deal With Feelings of Failure

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‘Aren’t you just a failed writer?’

I recently had those exact words levelled at me. I can’t go into the context at present, but it was in front of a room full of people I didn’t know, it was one of many unflattering things said to me at the time, and suffice it to say that the whole experience was a bit of a trial.

The remark was designed to rile me, to goad me, but it didn’t and later on, reflecting upon what had been said, I wondered why. I was called other words, some of which did sting. But I would have thought that those words in particular, meant to strike at the heart of something so integral to who I am, would wound me.

Of course, only someone who isn’t a writer would describe publishing five novels (and Part One of the sixth) “failure”. Anyone who has attempted it knows that novels are marathons and, as with any long race, you have lots of time to question why you began. For me there is the added expectation of feeling the need to complete a series and the feelings that have come with the earlier books in the series not exactly setting the world alight. All that pressure turns into daily questions—Why did I begin? Why don’t I just stop?—questions that become golden apples, tempting you to give up. Staying focussed, deciding to continue, isn’t just hard, it’s—to use another example from ancient myth—Sisyphian, that rock always threatening to slip back down the hill.

I have no doubt that the person who declared me to be a failure genuinely believed I was. I’m not well known. I don’t make a living from my writing, let alone a good living. Prestige and money are typical measures of “success” for an artist.

I used to make a living from writing, as a screenwriter. TV scripts are more lucrative than novels. I could have made scriptwriting a career but I chose to stop because, having finally achieved my dream of being a screenwriter I discovered that it wasn’t my dream after all. In fact, I found working in the TV industry more akin to a nightmare.

While wealthy authors exist, most of those I know make their money elsewhere and squeeze writing into the time that remains. I’ve historically worked in a 9-5 job.

Will that ever change? Perhaps. Last year I decided to improve my efforts to promote myself and I’ve recently had reason to vow to redouble those efforts. But until I’m able to make a living wage as an author I’m left with the irony that the costs of publishing and promotion are greater than the amount I bring in from royalties. My day job not only pays the bills, it pays my writing bills.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that, to the casual observer, I guess I do look like a failure.

So why continue?

First, writing novels makes me happy. Given the amount of time it absorbs—I spend most of my free time writing, time others might spend on a social life or interests—that’s a good thing. I’ve also noticed that when I’m happy, I write. Writing is a barometer on my mental health and also a way for me to stay sane.

Second, I’ve started Lucy’s story so I need to finish it. I’ve pushed her a good way along her hero’s journey but we’ve still a distance to go. I’m committed to seeing her along the entire path. I don’t yet know what the finish line looks like, but I know there is one and we’ll get there at some point, together.

So I actually enjoy the process and I’m committed to seeing it through.

Does this mean that I haven’t wanted to give up a thousand times? No.

Does this mean I haven’t actually given up? No. Book Four was almost not published because, deep into the final draft, I was overwhelmed with thinking I was wasting my time. For six months I was sure I couldn’t go on. But I did—thanks to my husband’s support—and that won’t happen again. Or it will and I’ll remind myself that I’ve been there before and found my way through. 

Does this mean that I don’t, or won’t, feel like a failure? No. Those feelings are never far from the surface. Almost every day I feel like a fraud, a pretender, a talentless hack. We define success so often purely through money and acclaim that, yes, the lack of either of those wear down my confidence.

Perhaps my questioner had a point after all. Perhaps I am just a failed writer.

But where that person was wrong is in thinking calling me that would injure me.

I long ago made my peace with those feelings. I long ago accepted that they are part of my own psyche, my own journey, my personal hero’s quest that will finally end when I finish The Mythic Series, whenever that is.

I long ago learned it was okay to feel like a failure, so long as I kept writing. Ultimately that’s all any writer can do. 

Because one day you will look back, you will see your novels in the rear vision mirror behind you as you are working on the next and you will wonder how you ever accomplished all that. Then you’ll remind yourself you did it one word at a time, one paragraph at a time, one page at a time… 

So that is the secret to my (lack of) success, my way of dealing with failure. I look back at an earlier chapter, or an earlier book, and I remind myself that these current feelings aren’t new, that I experienced them time and time again in the past but that I somehow found a way through them, or around or under them, and moved forward, that I even “gave up” previously but finished that book and then wrote another.

Because writing isn’t about success or failure. Your career might be, your livelihood is about earning or not earning. But writing, in its purest form, is simply about putting words down, polishing those words, then releasing them into the world. For me, so long as I keep doing that, then I haven’t failed. Failure only comes when I give in to all the forces that seek to stop me writing—including those in my own head. 

And yes, when you are staring into the darkness, when you have re-written part of a book three, four, ten times and it’s still not right, you will feel hopeless. But that feeling is also part of the process, of putting words down, of exploring the wrong paths that lead to dead ends. 

At those times I remind myself that I’m on a quest, that just like my characters I will come up against what seem like impossible odds, that repeated failure itself is part of the journey. Sometimes I put down the work and take a break. But I always trust the answers will come. Because they always have. I have the answers inside me. You have the answers inside you. It can take some time for them to appear, that’s all. 

That waiting for the right words to work their way to the surface is probably the toughest part of being a writer, at least it is for me. Equally it’s often the place where my best ideas appear from, the solutions rising like phoenixes from the flames of despair.

‘Aren’t you just a failed writer?’ Yes, I suppose I am. But at least I keep writing and doing that means that, in my own mind, I’ve succeeded after all.