Failure is the only option

I was deep in conversation with an artist the other evening, and we were talking about the traps that lie in wait along the footpath of creativity.

My artist friend told me, 'I was in my life-drawing class, and the tutor looked at my work and said, 'stop trying too hard.' I nodded. My friend continued. 'I often wish that I could go back to doing another Foundation course. During that time there were no rights and wrongs. I could do whatever I liked. There was a freedom in making mistakes.'

I nodded some more, and asked, 'Do you ever feel that if you work at a painting too much, you begin to destroy it, strangle the very soul of it?' 'Yes yes,' she replied.

I continued. 'Do you find that if you allow yourself to scribble away, without thinking, you create something real, something raw, that you wouldn't have if you thought about it too much?' 'Yes, absolutely,' she replied. 'But there's also when you stay with a piece and come back to it, again and again, changing something here, doing a little more there.'

'Surely that's only after you've found the resonance, that unspoken otherness, the magic of what you're creating, isn't it?' I asked. 'Yes,' she replied.

'Surely that's only after you've found the resonance, that unspoken otherness, the magic of what you're creating, isn't it?' I asked.   

Everything we learn to do in life has to start with failure. From failure grows determination, from over-thinking grows effortlessness. It all becomes second nature. You no longer have to think about the nuts and bolts of what you're doing.

When I took my driving test, I reversed around the corner and up on to the pavement three times. After each unconventional manoeuvre, during which, thankfully, I hadn't flattened a cat, a child, or an OAP, I pulled on the handbrake, checked my mirrors, and set off to try again.

 Thankfully I hadn't flattened a cat, a child, or an OAP, I pulled on the handbrake, checked my mirrors, and set off to try again

When I finally succeeded, the examiner offered me a polo-mint. I gratefully accepted. We returned to the centre, went through a few points of the Highway Code (thank God I did my test back in the dark ages before this new regime), and was told I'd passed. I can now drive enormous distances without any recollection of how I got there.

Learning to play the fiddle in my thirties, meant hours upon hours of tortuous cat-strangling in the kitchen with the door shut. It was the only place I could be relatively unheard by my long-suffering children. Taming the wild instrument that is the violin is no easy task. The seemingly impossible combination of finding the right note on the fingerboard whilst at the same time making the string sing with a tightened stick of horse-hair, took me to unseen corners of my patience.

Taming the wild instrument that is the violin is no easy task

The more I struggled, the harder I tried, the more bloody-minded I became. But what joy I eventually found. There is something magical about being lost in playing music – you forget about the mechanics, and become a part of the whole.

And writing? Hmm. Well. My success has been in short stories – every one of which I wrote either as a flash (timed, with no room for thought) or as a very close first draft. Yet the more I consciously mess around with words, the quicker I kill them off. I am more afraid of making a terrible noise with words than ever I was with music. I'm more anxious to succeed the first time around, to capture the magic in one fell swoop.

The more I mess around with words, the quicker I kill them off

My WIP, a novel about a boy who discovers that living alone on a ship in space is anything but normal, has had him on so many false starts he's beginning to wonder if he'll ever get out of his predicament.

But I know, it is only through failing, again and again, that my words will ever sing without the faintest hint of a cat being strangled.

Don't forget to check out:

Monday's interview with Melvin Burgess, by K. M. Lockwood. If you missed the conference workshop, have a read of Philippa's perceptive questions, and discover Melvin's answers on the difference between plot & story, and the importance of fairy-tale.

Tuesday's Ten minute blog round-up. I don't know where we'd be without Nick's comprehensive filtering of all the good stuff that's out there. There are some real gems in this latest haul.

Wednesday's Breaking into Educational Publishing – an eye-opening report of the conference panel, and the options out there to break in to the educational market, by Anita Loughrey

Thursday's Janet Foxley gave us a fascinating overview of SCBWI British Isles Conference 2014's Craft Intensive on Writing for Reluctant Readers. And there was sad news that our North West Network Organiser, Steph Williams has unfortunately had to step down from the role due to ill health.

Friday's Procatsination – another neat snippet from the life of cat & dog immersed in the creative world

Saturday's call-out for a Celebrations' Editor – this could be YOU! Get in touch pronto if it is...

Look forward to:

Monday Clare Bell shares her experience of writing a non-fiction book for Cadbury, in honour of National Non-Fiction November
Tuesday Another bodacious Blog Break with Nick
Wednesday Interview with Anthony McGowan by Celia Anderson, getting all the insights in to school visits, scatology and dyslexia
Thursday Something amazing...
Friday Interview with SCBWI BI's member of the year - Anne-Marie Perks

Nancy Saunders is gradually stepping in as the new Editor of W&P, with a generous helping hand from Jan. You can find her short stories here, and on Twitter @nancyesaunders


  1. "I am more afraid of making a terrible noise with words than ever I was with music"...wonderful. Also, yay for space! Keep going!

  2. Great to hear stories about work rather than the typical 'writers block' and 'I haven't got the time.' Fab post!

  3. So wise. This process involves so much failure because we are not just creating stories, we are evolving ourselves into the writers we are going to be.

  4. And what a supportive family to fail in! That's one of SCBWI's biggest draws for me (not the failure part) - I think it gives me the confidence to take bigger risks, which will inevitably include bigger fails -but what a warm and friendly safety net for it.

    Hope to hear you play the violin some time, Nancy. I've just taken up the recorder again, after about thirty years! There's a lot of failure going on there at the moment, but it'll all be in a good cause (even if it means locking myself away in the beginning...) Thanks for this.

  5. Total empathy with your article. Especially the learning of the violin (I was 45 when I started playing) and writing (my treat for my 50th birthday!). Every good wish.

  6. Cheers folks! sounds like we could get a band together....:-)

  7. Yes! Yes! Yes! I've leanred this exact lesson through fencing training - like your violin, I came to it late in life having wanted to be Errol Flynn for, pretty much, ever. If you dont' learn to accept your failings and move on, you will never learn. The passion must always be in the trying. Great post Nancy, thank you.

  8. Knowing what to edit, and what to leave alone, is one of the great skills of the craft of writing. Hang in there, Nancy - you'll get to the end of your space voyage!


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.