Writing and the Art of Failure

Every act of writing is a declaration of failure. A surrender to the words not written, the thoughts not shaped.


Every act of writing is a statement of defiance. Sundering words from the silence, naming a thing into existence.


As writers, we understand that creation and failure are indelibly intertwined. Every story drags behind it the shadow of the tale not told. It’s an inherent part of the craft and, without failure, there cannot be success.


We need to try. To fail. To fail again. And, in Samuel Beckett’s words, fail better. We need to shape worlds. Name things. Select words. Even the shaven ones that pare a sentence down to silence. And then, we need to try and find a reader to complete the creative circle.


It’s a daunting prospect. For many, it becomes the immovable boulder faced with the impossible hill. But the impetus to keep going, despite the setbacks and the failures, is what distinguishes the authors whose books are delivered into the world.


These are the writers who start again on the completion of every draft. The ones who bin a rejection letter, and write another submission. The ones who don’t give up on their work when it does not fit into publishing trends. The ones who whittle and defend and aspire. These are the authors who have a vision, even when they do not have a plan.


It’s wholly illogical. But to be a writer is to be unhinged. Seeing things that no one else can; and giving voice to the jumble in the head. That messy tangle of words that blurt their way onto the page in a spasm of joy and pain. Whole days, years can be lost to it. Appointments are missed and hours bend to this devotion to crazy. But oh, the fun of putting manners on a sentence!


What follows is another matter: the self-doubt and the void of approbation. The difficulty of sustaining one’s vision in the darkness. Yet, the successful author does not give in when their work does not fit the expectations of an industry that is focused on the bottom line, and not always on the well-crafted one.


Without this tenacity, language, and indeed, thought itself, would not evolve. The writer needs to keep finding fresh ways to pull newness into being. And something Other is not, by its nature, a trend. It’s not in fashion. No one’s reading it. Yet.


Nor will the work find its audience if the writer bows the head and retreats to a safer space, where the world doesn’t judge, and nothing is ventured.


Then there’s the gain. When the leap of faith is taken, and the book is read. Sometimes only by a few people. But, it’s a beginning. An idea taking shape. A new way of engaging with the world.


As a reader, I’m always trying to catch up with the ephemeral thought. Even if it is not fully understood. The one that takes me by surprise; the one that makes me think. It’s the one I want to snatch and examine before it becomes something else.


I have no doubt that many authors, particularly the ones who didn’t slot into a defined genre, or word count, or reader profile and marketing strategy, finally found their niche by simply not giving up. They failed. Repeatedly. And they kept on going.


I’m equally certain there are many great books that remain unread and uncelebrated. Belief was irredeemably shaken; and the drawer was closed on the manuscript. And we are all the poorer for it.


Anna Burns, after winning The Man Booker prize for Milkman in 2018, famously spoke about an invitation she received from a large publishing house she had submitted her manuscript to. She had some talent, they said, and might benefit from one of their writing workshops.


Of course, it was clear she could write. They just didn’t know where she could fit.


The thing is, she didn’t. And that is the beauty of her work. It’s what makes it so special, and what we, as readers, have gained, as a result.


Samuel Beckett, who was crippled by bouts of depression and whose work, at the outset, challenged even the avant garde coterie of the time, developed a philosophy of failure: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”


Murphy, his first novel, accrued dozens of rejections. Simon and Schuster, while recognizing Beckett’s talent, attributed it with “5% appeal.”


Where Joyce was a linguistic projectile, Beckett swallowed back words and sculpted silence. Who, it was argued, would sit through a play in which nothing happened, and the main protagonist never arrived? Still, he kept writing. Even when his audience, as well as his subject, was the void.


My debut novel, Time and the Tree, was deemed to have a magical quality, but was unquestionably odd. It was an accurate assessment, and it didn’t find a home easily. Declan Kiberd described it as, “A genre-busting masterpiece.” A reader on Goodreads.com recently named it “genreless.”


I was delighted with its evasion of a label; and “genreless” struck me as the perfect depiction. It doesn’t fit a publishing category. But it is wholly attuned to this confusing and challenging moment.  Its Otherness allows the reader to approach it with fluidity and imprint their own experiences, memories, failures and aspirations, and find their own meaning from it. The reader creates it in their own image, according to their need and belief, every single time.


The most often given advice to writers is the very sensible and simple one: write. Put words on the page. Hone the skill. Keep crafting and finding one’s voice. What’s omitted is the next step: work through the doubt and the rejection. As you recognize your work’s flaws, be equally aware of its value and celebrate its Otherness. The same book has never been written twice.


Writers don’t wither for want of words, or dearth of readers. They dissolve when they fail to pick themselves up and keep going. This doesn’t require confidence. But it demands some bravery. When the rejection slips pile up, thicken the hide, and go on. Revise. Re-write. Re-submit. Fail better.


(c) Róisín Sorahan


Original publication can be found on Writing.ie