Sunday, 8 February 2015

Coping with Failure

'Failure is just another name for much of real life' - Margaret Attwood

Failure.  A short word that encompasses many embarrassing and tragic events.  It takes many forms, and results from an inability to achieve the expectations of others, or of ourselves.  It needs no further definition, because it's a familiar experience for us all, from the very public failures such as exams or sporting endeavours, to the very private moral and sexual failures that we rarely share with others.

In certain circles, it seems that talking about failure is anathema, and yet it can be strangely liberating.  Failure and redemption remain enduring themes in literature.  We identify with characters that have challenges that mirror our own.  Perhaps you wish you were a better parent, or that you had been a better child.  Maybe at some point in life, you tossed a coin, and picked heads when it came down tails, or maybe your life has been a picture of external success, while inside, a different, nagging flame wishes to burn.

For me, writing and failure are synonymous.  Every time I step up to the page, I'm conscious that the perfect, expressive block of text inside my mind will have acquired edges, new limbs and awkward corners by the times it ends up on my laptop screen.  So as every failure of a child is said to be the ultimate failure of a parent, every page I write becomes a disappointment to me.

Genre writers will be familiar with the advice that you should rack up the tension in stories by throwing ever-greater obstacles in the protagonist's path.  Why do we do this, and why is it so effective?  Quite simply, because it inflates the value of the ultimate triumph which we know must happen by the end.  What do we think of stories where no ultimate triumph occurs?  They grate on us, touch our collective consciousness in a way that reminds us that sometimes, the best intentions and all the effort in the world are not enough to succeed.

And yet, how much do we learn about a person - indeed, about ourselves - unless we suffer failure?  Many of the heroes in modern stories are bound to succeed due to destiny, godlike powers or prodigious talent.  What future for those of us who cannot fall back on those things?  We need to find another way to process these emotions.  For all his talents, Gatsby does not win Daisy's heart, and pays the ultimate price for his obsession.  We feel his loss so keenly because it is our own.

Perhaps then, the true measure of an individual is to be honest about those failures, and to learn something from them.  In the words of Rudyard Kipling, we should be able to meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.  This strikes a particular chord with me, because I am genuinely as ambivalent about my successes as I seem outwardly to be about my failures.  And yet, the best stories about failure are still the ones that end with some variation on the theme of, 'when I learned X from that failure, I went on to do this really successful thing.'

So I think I speak for all of us who cannot find the words to say we wish we'd loved more deeply, behaved more recklessly, been more daring, had more fun.  Just because we can't articulate doesn't mean that we don't care.  Most importantly of all, we must forgive ourselves for our failures, because doing so means accepting who we are.

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