For a while, it seems, this particular adventurer has not been very adventurous. In early March, I finished a rewrite of my fantasy novel, having painstakingly planned, retyped, edited and reworked 109,000 words of prose.
It is now 120,000 words of prose. I need to cut it down.
In that time, I have written exactly two poems and put almost nothing out, in terms of creative work, into the public space. I have not really tweeted, updated followers on facebook, sent out email updates or bragged about any achievements on Instagram.
Mainly because there aren’t any. Creating is a long, delicate, chaotic process constantly balanced on the point of a needle. I say ‘balanced’, mostly it is that kind of balance where your spine is bent at an extra-ordinary angle and you are flailing your arms widely to avoid crashing to Earth. It is a wild, inelegant, mad sort of balance that will eventually give up and fall.
My hope is always that it will fall into something wonderful.
Despite a relative length of radio silence and creative quiet, I have actually been quite busy. Look:
- I rewrote a novel! 120,000 words guys. THAT’S A LOT OF WORDS!
- I wrote two poems, sent one off to the Outspoken Poetry Prize for 2018 and, so far, have been longlisted. I’m quite chuffed about this.
- I have been running a poetry residency at a school in Hampshire and have just started a second residency at a school in Slough.
- I have finally bitten the bullet with a long-term goal and decided to learn a musical instrument. The instrument of choice is the ukulele. I have been practising every day without fail for the past five weeks, joined a ukulele group, signed up for Yousician, downloaded countless tabs from the internet and, in about a year or so, I hope to convert some haphazard collections of poetry into a concept-poetry album based around Greek Mythology.
- I submitted an application for Arts Council funding to develop a narrative in ‘Octopus Medicine’ into a promenade performance.
- The above application was rejected, so I cried for a bit, pulled up my socks, rewrote the application and submitted it again this weekend.
Despite this, I feel inherently that I have fallen out of favour, that my fanbase is waning, (if ever I even had one), that my lack of creative output means I will tumble from the humble level of notoriety (and I use this word very loosely) that I had achieved, back into utter obscurity.
I worry that what I write is not good, not enough, not expressed right, not in the right medium, not appreciated, not understood, not accessible enough, not relevant, not current, not original, too weird, not weird enough.
I make no claim that I am alone in this. I am not. Every artist I speak to, in every medium, has responded to this with ‘yeah, I feel that all the time. It’ll pick up.’
I realise that I have only been doing this full time for a year and a half. That’s not long. And in my first year, I had unprecedented successes. I was riding high on a wave of my own brilliance; I had commission after commission after commission, my first book of poetry was published, I was writing poetry almost every day, and the nature of poetry means it can be put out into the public sphere almost immediately. I received funding both for my residency programme and also for a show I was working on and I was given a residency at Poole Museum.
Looking back on it, I’m surprised that this particular wave of success lasted so long.
Enter January 2018 and the mental tumbleweed starts to roll.
I have had two rejections so far this year. Par-for-the-course (of course) but disheartening nonetheless. The nature of writing a novel is that one spends intense periods of time working, working, working, with no real way of putting that work out there, particularly not if one wants to find an agent for conventional publishing. So, although I have produced a heck of a lot of actual writing (did I mention it is 120,000 words?) no one has actually seen it.
Yes, learning to play an instrument is great but I have been playing for five weeks. I’m not showing ANYONE outside my immediate family and friends what I can do yet, because it will be deafeningly unimpressive. It’s not bad, it just isn’t any good either.
And the worst part of all this is the incessant, nagging guilt that I should be putting more out there. I will be honest: Neither my own ego, nor Facebook, have helped very much. Facebook seems constantly to be updating me on everyone else’s successes; so-and-so has ACE funding for this project (I read this particular post the day I got my ACE rejection. Not the artist’s fault, just terrible timing) or this particular artist has just had a collection published, or somebody’s been invited on a book tour, or someone else has been offered this amazing commission. I look at all this, as everyone does, and feel utterly inadequate. I’m torn between the terrible, egotistical frustration of the artist (but no one has seen what I can do yet! Give me a CHANCE!) and an utter, bottomless cavern of self-doubt (everyone else is so much better than me…)
The most ridiculous part of these mad feelings can be described in two parts:
- I am just as guilty of posting these self-promotional posts as the next artist. It is how we keep followers updated and how we keep our chins up in an incredibly lonely industry that wants our work but doesn’t want to pay or support us for doing it.
- EVERY OTHER ARTIST feels exactly the same when they scroll through the profiles of their artistic friends. We all suffer rejections, it’s just that we don’t post about those. That shame, that failure, is private.
Constantly, we receive the paradoxical message that failure is good for us, it is how we strive for betterness, how we assess our skill, how we improve (and it is, this is true); but the capitalistic culture of success means that failure also comes with a desperate sense of shame and should be dealt with in the dark of one’s own heart. We share what will impress others but conceal these crucial moments in our own artistic journey that, arguably, are more defining.
Successful artists often talk about the moments of failure in their life, but they do so from a position of exceptional hindsight after spectacular feats of success or brilliance, be it in terms of awards, outreach or economical success. We view their failures only in the context of their brilliance. We nod and murmur and accept, even celebrate, these failures because we know what they have since achieved. But what do we do when we have not yet achieved that brilliance? When we have no certainty that we will ever achieve it? What do we do when we are still wriggling around in the crocodile-infested river of our own effort? Failure is less tolerated then; we are judged on it. Whether or not we deserve funding, respect, or even to call ourselves artists, is called into question when we are still in the depths of this failure. It is a culture that does not need to punish artists, to denigrate, control or isolate them, because it has made artists do this by themselves.
How can we possibly hope to create anything inspirational, political, socially-motivated or ground-breaking when our constant worry is whether or not we are being recognised right here, right now, for what we are doing? The constant need to instantly gratify our audiences means that quantity of work, churned out on the production line of our minds, is valued above contemplation and quality. It might take me another six months to finish this novel, and another year or more to find a publisher, and even then, it will be a further year or more before it ends up in print.
That’s nearly three years of work on a single piece of writing that no one will see until it is finished.
It might be remarkable when it’s done, but how many times might I crash or stumble along the way, punish myself for it, feel unable to voice my fears, fall back into obscurity? How often might I be judged unworthy as an artist by those around me, because they do not yet have the context of my possible future success?
I know I am not the only artist to feel this way, or the only person. We all feel this, all the time. Perhaps it is more prevalent with artists because who we are is so utterly intertwined with what we create. But, as a way of breaking silence, here is everything I have failed at in the last three months. Because shame is only shame when you don’t say it.
- I was supposed to finish the book at the end of February. I didn’t. I finished it a week later.
- I haven’t written anything in about a week.
- I didn’t get the Arts Council Funding I wanted for my promenade performance.
- I was rejected (albeit very kindly) from a job with a National body to run a course to help other writers get into education.
- I haven’t updated my blog in three months.
- I haven’t posted to my facebook followers in longer than three months.
- I haven’t sent out a Mailchimp update in I-don’t-actually-remember-how-long.
- I haven’t sold a copy of Octopus Medicine for a month and a half.
- I haven’t sold a bespoke collection in nearly four months.
- I haven’t been invited to run a workshop at a school since November.
- I didn’t go to the gym today.
- I can’t seem to make myself start the next redraft of my novel, even though I know I need to.
- I have been trying to play ‘Havana’ on my ukulele for the past week but I can’t get the hang of the D7 chord.
Here is one way I succeeded today:
- I overcame the shame that tried to stop me from publishing this post, even though I know only a handful of people will read it. Hopefully one of them will read it and feel a bit better.
Despite what we tell ourselves, failure is not the end. It is just a broken step on the staircase, a loose rock on the mountain, a hidden rabbit-hole in the forest. Yes we might trip and fall. We might twist our ankle and have to rest for a while, we might slip backwards a few paces and have to retrace our steps. We might realise there is no way through here and have to find another way around.
But there is one thing failure is not.
It is not the end.
It defines us only in how we choose to interpret it, grow from it, acknowledge it. I know this message has been tooted a million times, but it has always been done so by artists who have since succeeded and are sat upon the monumental thrones of their own determination. They deserve to be beacons of inspiration. But it does not always help to know that they have failed when we view their failure within the context of their success.
So please listen to it from someone who is in the depths of her own failure, constantly questioning her own ability, wondering at her own skill, worrying about the future, concerned about her place in the world and whether the footprint she leaves will be deep enough for others to see it.
It is not the end. Keep going.
Get up, strap your ankle, take a deep breath.
Take a step. Then another.
Know there will be other false steps, rabbit-holes, loose rocks, trips, stumbles and brick walls.
They might phase you for a bit. It is ok to collapse and cry sometimes, as long as you wipe your tears after, get up, and keep. Going.