Saturday, 22 June 2013

Anyone can be a success,but it takes real guts to be a failure

I am currently sitting at my desk drinking a cuppa and wondering if I am doing enough with my time. Time - ever omnipresent. Tick tock, tick tock, goes the clock. I am sure I am not the only person who has this feeling. It's not always in the forefront in my mind; it isn't really now, just something in the background, a shadow. It insists that I must make the best use of my time. Obviously, the type of activities change, but they often fall into two categories: Spending enough time alone (which tends to coincide with spells of being creative) and spending enough time with my loved ones (this tends to coincide with eating, walking and playtime). I am not sure where paid work falls into this. It used to be like time -  all-encompassing, but it's become something more detached from me.

Anyway, despite being aware of these two hemispheres, and having practised living them for a number of years they don't always piece together very well to make a whole well-rounded spherical life. But that's ok - nothing is perfect. I am glad it's not, otherwise I would be really bored. Imperfection is what keeps me ticking, like the clock. The failure of things gives me something to improve on, or to interpret. Failures reveal things about myself and in turn reveal things about other people to me. Failure brings me closer to my friends, colleagues, family members and to humanity on a whole. It's a chink in the darkness, a black hole in paradise, revealing things about nature that I had not consciously recognised.

Today I read this fantastic article in The Guardian about failure and you can read it here. I have inserted the articles by Anne Enright and Howard Jacobson because I found them to be inspirational.

My favourite lines are:

Art is made by those who consider themselves to have failed at whatever isn't art. Howard Jacobson

Success may be material but is also an emotion – one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold. Anne Enright

Anne Enright

Anne Enright. Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe  

I have no problem with failure - it is success that makes me sad. Failure is easy. I do it every day, I have been doing it for years. I have thrown out more sentences than I ever kept, I have dumped months of work, I have wasted whole years writing the wrong things for the wrong people. Even when I am pointed the right way and productive and finally published, I am not satisfied by the results. This is not an affectation, failure is what writers do. It is built in. Your immeasurable ambition is eked out through the many thousand individual words of your novel, each one of them written and rewritten several times, and this requires you to hold your nerve for a very long period of time – or forget about holding your nerve, forget about the wide world and all that anxiety and just do it, one word after the other. And then redo it, so it reads better. The writer's great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day. It may not be what gets us to the desk but it is what keeps us there and, after 20 or 30 years, this love yields habit and pleasure and necessity.

So. All this is known. In the long run we are all dead, and none of us is Proust. You must recognise that failure is 90% emotion, 10% self-fulfilling reality, and the fact that we are haunted by it is neither here nor there.The zen of it is that success and failure are both an illusion, that these illusions will keep you from the desk, they will spoil your talent; they will eat away at your life and your sleep and the way you speak to the people you love.

The problem with this spiritual argument is that success and failure are also real. You can finish a real book and it can be published or not, sell or not, be reviewed or not. Each one of these real events makes it easier or harder to write, publish, sell the next book. And the next. And the one after that. If you keep going and stay on the right side of all this, you can be offered honours and awards, you can be recognised in the street, you can be recognised in the streets of several countries, some of which do not have English as a native language. You can get some grumpy fucker to say that your work is not just successful but important, or several grumpy fuckers, and they can say this before you are quite dead. And all this can happen, by the way, whether or not your work is actually good, or still good. Success may be material but is also an emotion – one that is felt, not by you, but by the crowd. This is why we yearn for it, and can not have it, quite. It is not ours to hold.

I am more comfortable with the personal feeling that is failure than with the exposure of success. I say this even though I am, Lord knows, ambitious and grabby, and I want to be up there with the rest of them. Up! There!

The sad thing is, when the flash bulbs do pop and fade, you are left, in the pulsing after-light, with a keen sense of how unhappy people can be with what they have achieved in life. Perfectly successful people. With perfectly good lives. And you come to appreciate the ones who have figured all that shit out. Meanwhile, and briefly, you are a "success", which is to say an object, whether of envy or acclaim. Some people like all that, but I, for reasons I have not yet figured out, find it difficult. I don't want to be an object. I find jealousy unpleasant (because it is unpleasant). I resist praise.

The writer's life is one of great privilege, so "Suck it up", you might say – there are more fans than trolls. But there are two, sometimes separate, ambitions here. One is to get known, make money perhaps and take a bow – to be acknowledged by that dangerous beast, the crowd. The other is to write a really good book.

And a book is not written for the crowd, but for one reader at a time. A novel is written (rather pathetically) not to be judged, but experienced. You want to meet people in their own heads – at least I do. I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson. Photograph: Murdo Macleod

But you have to see failure as an opportunity. I took the route favoured by all worldly failures and became a spiritual success. That might be an inflated way of putting it, but failures are nothing if not grandiose. If the world doesn't value us, we won't value the world. We seek solace in books, in solitary and sometimes fantastical thinking, in doing with words what boys who please their fathers do with balls. We look down on what our fellows like, and make a point of liking what our fellows don't. We become special by virtue of not being special enough. I doubt many writers were made any other way.

Art is made by those who consider themselves to have failed at whatever isn't art. And of course it is loved as consolation, or a call to arms, by those who feel the same. One of the reasons there seem to be fewer readers for literature today than there were yesterday is that the concept of failure has been outlawed. If we are all beautiful, all clever, all happy, all successes in our way, what do we want with the language of the dispossessed?


  1. Oh Jess - I love that you think out loud .. that you question and put it out in the universe.
    Am struggling at the moment with being pulled in so many directions and really questioning everything.
    This post resonated with me ... thinking about you and wishing we could sit and chat again, I'd love that.
    My favourite:
    "success and failure are both an illusion, that these illusions will keep you from the desk, they will spoil your talent; they will eat away at your life ..."
    And so - I guess I come back to my own spiritual belief of balance being key - the pendulum swings both ways - our work is to sit in the middle somewhere so as not to become unbalanced :)

    1. I am glad you like the post Vicki and found it reassuring and informative. I liked that quote too, but it kind of made me sad at the end of it, so I decided that I didn't like it in the end - and yet it is so true. Balance is certainly the key, and patience and integrity. I bet it's a whorlwind at chez Johnston at the moment with Lauren's news! I wish we were nattering at a table with smoked almonds again.

      Oh well, one day at a time, each with it's own sense of adventure and mystery.

      All my love to you and the family. Keep that flexibility going, like pizza dough - a nice romana base, but not so thin that you become a fried poppadom!

    2. Ah what an interesting dialogue Jess and Vicky……. and how good that Howard raised the notion that failure is an opportunity. Out of the quagmire of the remains of the late 20th century artistic neurosis the realisation is emerging that failure is a tool to be used.

      Failure and success are two sides of the same coin, one depends on the other. Far better to use the opportunity of failure in a positive way because in so doing we experience freedom, the freedom that comes when we do not over-identify with either failure or success.

      Failure is not who we truly are, it is something we do. We experience both for a reason, through both we gain experience and consequently we evolve. Failure inevitably happens as part of the path to success and success is something once achieved is the sign post to the next failure. From here on I’m with Vicky as the ones with the quest for balance are willing to engage and learn from both success and failure and have enough conscious awareness to refrain from over-identifying with either.

      Time and time again I see artists compare themselves to other artists and torture themselves with given standards via a twisted impression of what is success and what is failure (neurosis). Success and failure bring us pain and pleasure, but when we are in balance we see them both differently, we see that success and failure are something we use to access balance.

      It’s only natural. The evolved result of really learning from success and failure is something quite beautiful for a human being - which is service.

    3. Beautifully said, thank you Coral.
      Thank you again Jess for opening the dialogue.
      Today has been a challenge - but in the midst of the usual frustration that creeps in ... I see the lesson waiting for me.
      This applies to almost anything in life.

    4. SERVICE! Thank you Coral for helping me realise what it was I was trying to describe at the end of my post. I just couldn't find the word. I completely agree with you in everything that you have said. I believe to be free from fear (including failure and therefore the absolute need to do the opposite- be successful) is to enter a higher state of consciousness and that in turn leads to love. With love comes service to all living things.

      For me, time is a big problem. We all have an awareness that we have a limited amount if it. We are all mortal and for me it has become my number one enemy. I'm a patient creature, so it's not that I need everything quick, but I do get a kick when I feel I've made good use if my time. Sometimes that us just to sit in the sun and have a sangria but its even better for me when there's something physical to touch, hold and look back at. Something produced. The alchemical process of converting time into something tangible. I have always been fascinated by that. Maybe it is for this reason that I like projects that take a lot if time.

      So yes, for me to fail at first means I wasted my time. Then I have go deeper and work out that we need to fail and that it is ok to fail and that it wasn't a waste of my time.

      Time for me is like wearing shackles, but thank god it's there or I'd never get anything done and everything would be pointless. I'd lose respect for life. Time is the master and my best teacher. It's magical.

  2. Thanks for the thought provoking post and discussion! I agree that success and failure are outside of ourselves--when either begins to define us then we are in trouble. Somehow my failures enrich me as a person and are what I learn from, while success is sweet but fleeting. I find what ultimately keeps me in balance is gratitude, no matter what success or failure I might be experiencing. Gratitude brings me back to reality.

  3. A good point there Janene. Gratitude and being humble are to me the most important traits and experiences in life. They slow one down and feed into the larger experience of awe. Awe of the beauty and power of life's force. Awe of the interconnectedness of everything. Awe then leads to respect. respect for nature, it's mystical properties and all living things that have to deal with its mysteries everyday. That then goes back to being humble. Eventually the ego is crushed, and with it the ego's attachment to success and fear of failure. But I don't think it will never fully go away, because I believe we are all fighting for survival on a very primitive level, and that is the biggest drive to successIt's biologically hot-wired in all creatures. The survival of the fittest. In a most black and white sense we fight for life. I feel us humans just find it tricky being creatures with a conscience. It gets complicated and difficult to measure. We have an amazing ability to become our own worst enemies sometimes!

    1. Thank you ladies, for this inspirational conversation, for your understanding and the power of your convictions so beautifully expressed.

      It is so interesting to see how an artist’s work is a reflection of the way they are balanced as a person. When painting nature from life there is always an element of the personality woven into what is described as observational work. In a way the word 'observational' is a something of a veil of appearances because it is inevitable that an artist is also expressing a measure of their relationship to nature, their beliefs, and their understanding of what life is.

      How an artist defines or experiences having a conscience is partly connected to the family lineage, education, or the collective pressure. I understand what you are saying Jess, because a true conscience, like true service, is driven by unconditional love and it is free from worry.

      We all have the option to learn to recognise what we have received in our personality, in order to rescue what could be termed the innocence of our conscience. Crisis is necessary, in small and large ways, because it tests our beliefs and our capacity for gratitude and humility. Our understanding is then galvanised or it is broken down, reassessed, and rebuilt. When a crisis is faced without denial and with inner kindness towards one's self, we get the chance to evolve as something new, with which we in turn can create.