I wanted to be the next Nora Ephron, but my novel got stuck. Did failure teach me anything? | Hadley Freeman
Redemptive stories about learning from mistakes make me feel that I fail at failing
About a decade or so ago, I decided that the reason God had put me on this green earth was to write a novel. Actually, thats not quite right: about a decade ago, I decided to start writing a novel. For pretty much my entire teenage and adult life I had assumed that I would one day write a classic comic novel. Being the next Nora Ephron was just obviously who I was, Id think airily, taking it as much for granted as being brunette.
And so, shortly before my 30th birthday, I sat down with much internal fanfare at my laptop, raised my hands above my keyboard like a concert pianist, and began.
For years two? three? I tore myself in strips trying to write that sodding novel, hacking away to find the Heartburn that I knew was within me. I let relationships decay and cancelled nights out with friends, all because I had to write my novel, which meant writing and rewriting the same 50 pages. On I miserably soldiered, because if I didnt write a novel, I told myself, my life would be meaningless and unbearable. But while I hadnt expected fiction writing to be easy, I was taken aback by something I had not foreseen: I was bad at it. Finally, on the verge of self-inflicted insanity, I showed what I had done to a friend and she confirmed what I already knew: it wasnt good enough. Id failed at the one thing Id always wanted to do.
Ive been thinking about failure recently, and not just my own numerous experiences with it. The writer Elizabeth Day has turned her successful podcast, How To Fail, into a heartfelt book, published last week. Ostensibly memoir mixed with self-help, Day tells the story of her life through the prism of her failures, which run the gamut from driving tests to divorce, and includes anecdotes from celebrities who have appeared on her podcast, including Sebastian Faulks and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And when Ive not been reading about failures, Ive been watching them in Netflixs terrific new series Losers, directed by Mickey Duzyj, in which each episode focuses on a high-profile sporting failure.
Some of the critical takes on Days book and the TV show have queried whether successful writers and sports champions can really be described as failures. But it feels churlish to snipe, when both Day and Duzyj are showing us that behind even the most impressive faade often lies an ocean of shame and regret. Failure may be relative, but the sense of pain is not.
Both the book and the series follow a similar template, in that they tell a tale of failure and then redeem it with a silver lining: Day learns lessons (and gets a successful book and podcast); the sporting heroes achieve new goals and greater happiness. This is a very TED-talk approach to failure, mixed with the fairytale promise of a happy ending. Days publishers describe her book as uplifting, and certainly reading it is a more cheering experience than most peoples experience of failure, which is, I failed at something and then had a massive chip on my shoulder about it for years.
But the message that failure can be beneficial doesnt uplift me: it just makes me feel that I fail at failing. Perhaps its because as previously mentioned I am no fiction writer, but I have never been able to put a narrative spin on my big misses. When I failed to write my long-awaited (by me) novel, I didnt then go off and climb Mount Everest or achieve other marvellous things. Life carried on as before, just without the novel in the bag. Similarly, I spent my 20s screwing up in spectacularly self-destructive fashion, staying in bad relationships for too long and chucking away good ones too soon, without rising like a triumphant phoenix from my pile of ashes; I remained very much me.
But what I did learn was that I could cope with failure. I could stare it straight in the eye, neither blaming anyone else nor expecting a redemptive twist and the world, contrary to expectations, was bearable. It turned out my life didnt need to have a meaning (such as Being A Novelist), but could instead be about living. I am glad people are being reassured that failure is OK, because it is. But I also believe that a big part of being an adult is learning that failure doesnt need to be spun into some kind of larger story. You can also just accept it.
Not writing a novel is hardly a tragedy, but it made me recalibrate the image Id had of myself. Increasingly, I believe my biggest mistakes were not the mistakes themselves, but my framing of them as failures. Life is not a series of achievements to tick off a list, but a stream of unexpected meanderings, and any seemingly crucial benchmarks along the way are really just our own expectations. Even us failed novelists can get caught up in our own fictions. The truth is, even without the expected ending, you can still live happily ever after.