When is the right time to write about failure?

Once upon a time, I had a lovely novel rejected (in fact I’ve had multiple novels rejected more than once at several times, but that’s not important right now). This novel had got me an agent. It had got me a lunch with an editor (Pizza Express, no less, and she paid). It had made it through Editorial (‘awfully excited at the prospect of a series!’) But when it got to Marketing, it stalled like a ride-on lawnmower in Spring. ‘Who is this Antonia Honeywell?’ they asked. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, no one could answer.

I could have told them that she was a teacher who’d always wanted to learn to play the piano, that she’d written two novels before this one, that Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters brought her up, that she’d written a play and a musical and read five or six novels a week and loved her little sister with all her heart and knew all the lyrics to every song Banararama had ever recorded.

‘Oh, yes,’ they were never going to say, ‘Antonia Honeywell, I know, the one who persevered with Sean in 10C even though everyone else had given up on him and is even now sobbing over the card he sent from college to thank her.’ That’s all I had to offer. It didn’t count for anything in the world I wanted to join. But oh how I wanted to join it.

Publishing, for me, was the philosopher’s stone that was going to turn the rest of my life into gold. The hours I spent writing instead of going out with friends or sleeping; the pain of working through those rejections, starting again, writing more, striving to write better; it would all be worthwhile if I should ever get published. I didn’t know any writers, or anyone in the industry; I had no idea of the many, many things at play in the fate of a good manuscript, or that the quality of the writing is only one of them. Eventually I ‘made it.’ And there, my friends, the story ends. Reader, I married him*

*The Ship got commercially published.

The nightmare didn’t start when the foreign deals failed to flood in, or when the film rights didn’t get snapped up, or when The Ship was mysteriously missing from the bestseller lists. Of course I would have loved those things, but they weren’t – and I don’t think ever will be – what I was writing for. I was writing because I wanted to write – I wanted writing to be my work, not the thing that had to be squeezed in around my work. Publication gave me the confidence to write the second novel I really wanted to write (‘oh, you’re so lucky to be out of contract!’ well-meaning writer friends told me, although I would have killed for a contract), and kind readers sent encouragement. That novel was rejected. I wrote something completely different. More rejection, at a time when my fellow debuts were bringing out their second novels and contracted for their third. My poor laptop, who really had thought its days of being assaulted with blood and salt water were over, finally rebelled and threw in the towel. And I looked at my narrowing life and wondered what I’d done to it.

How often do you get back on the horse that’s thrown you? People only write about having been thrown off when they’ve got back on. But increasingly, I find myself fascinated by those who make all the sacrifices, put in all the hours, devote themselves with wholehearted commitment to a goal and don’t make it. The Olympic gymnast who goes home without a medal. The young musician who doesn’t make it to the Royal Festival Hall. The actor who doesn’t get the role.

The time to write about failure is not in an elusive future that may never be. For most of us, whatever dream we’re working towards, it’s now. Success is a rainbow, moving ever further from us the more we chase it.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write about learning to write all over again. There will be music and sourdough, a rather substantial building project and some tributes to incredible people. There is no reveal, no affirming book deal to astound you with at the end. Only the fact that I’m here, back on the horse, although riding, perhaps, a little more gently now.

21 thoughts on “When is the right time to write about failure?

  1. I don’t think I have…. no, correction, I most definitely have never, ever read such an insightful, heartfelt, not to mention unpretentious blog about failure and writing.
    Having experienced what I refer to as my- Two Near Misses,’ this piece has picked me up just when I needed it most and spurred me to continue on.

    PS: I stumbled upon this while googling something that I felt I REALLY needed to search for: POV, character development, other stuff that was unnecessary for me to be stressing over.
    Because, truthfully, all I was doing was swerving going near my laptop and therefore avoiding the only thing that I could see lurking beneath it’s lid…. Another Rejection.
    Now I’m approaching it, about to lift the lid, renenergised, and armed with guts and self belief that this novel could, perhaps, just perhaps, finally be the one……
    So cheers, Antonia. I am very much obliged!

  2. I don’t think, no, correction, I have never, ever, read anything quite as accurate and heartfelt as this. Having experienced what I refer to as my- ‘Two Near Misses’ this brilliantly written, truthful, not to mention unpretentious piece has actually spurred me to continue on. So cheers for this, Antonia….I am very much obliged!

  3. Wonderful. Wonderful. Good luck Antonia. I’d like to take a page from your book & likely may but for today I’m still too raw from recent rejections of second novel. Failure is painful … on top of everything else. Send me some sour dough 😉 x

  4. I love your piece – and so identify with its events and heart ache. I know what it is like – really- being honest about ones writing and thinking, ‘actually, it’s ok – I can write-it may not be the most glorious prose ever, but people enjoy what I write and I take some cautious pride in my ‘voice’ and the integrity of my writing and the stories I am telling- but then finding oneself ‘unmarketable’ – too ‘ordinary ‘ too ‘old,’ too ‘middle class’ – too ‘normal’ –
    There is just so much luck in this writing/publishing business- right place, right people, right time -but if you’re a writer, you HAVE to write! So with humility and trying to muster a shred of self-belief, we go on!

  5. Thank you for writing about this. There are so resonances and parallels with academic life and writing here. I look forward to reading more.

  6. Antonia,

    This is the first time I have ever replied to a blog post by anyone anywhere in the whole wide world. What a wonderful and humble and special thing to write. I will be following and cheering for you.


  7. Dear Antonia,

    I’ve just read this on my phone via Twitter and it resonated so much with me. I gather you did learn to play the piano but if not, please do take it up! I grew up reading and playing the piano with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. I didn’t make it to the RFH – except as a member of the audience. It was a mixed relief when I gave up performing and that sense of failure has never quite left me – even though I love teaching the piano.
    And I’m also trying to be a writer now, although far from publication, if that ever happens. I think I’ve learnt perseverance from my ‘day job’ – and I am lucky that I’ve spent my working life as a musician (and teacher) with writing in the background. Now is the time to work at my writing – I know that practice works! – and I hope that the fact I still love the piano despite having ‘failed’ at my first chosen career will give me the courage to keep going with the writing. If nothing else I can leave long rambling messages on people’s websites!
    Thank you for sharing this very personal post. By the way, I also have a sourdough starter waiting in the kitchen…

  8. I’ve been a professional writer (prime time TV drama, crime novels, radio plays, journalism etc) for over 30 years and if I’ve learned one thing it’s that writing careers seldom go in a straight line. Keep going! And all power to your elbow.

  9. This is a wonderful post, thank you. You spoke to my Curtis Brown Creative cohort in 2015 and it was the best talk we had on the course. I think we need to find a different way to talk about success and failure in the writing world. As an unpublished novelist who has nevertheless been writing seriously for about half my life, the question in your title really resonated with me. I’d like to write and talk about these issues, but am worried it will come across as sour grapes. But there must be a way to allow people to ‘join’ the writing world without making it conditional on a traditional publishing deal (and on continued traditional publishing deals…) I loved The Ship, and I wish you the very best with your future work.

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