• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

How Writing (thankfully!) Makes Failures Out of Us All by Alana Kirk

Writing.ie | Resources | Developing Your Craft

Alana Kirk

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I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t failed. Yet the only writers I know have succeeded.

What I’ve learned from being a published author of a bestselling memoir, as well as a writer of another two (as yet) unpublished ventures, is that it isn’t the writing that makes us a success or failure. It’s our nerve.

I’m currently holding my nerve. As well as making my living as a writer, I’m also a qualified coach and practise as The MidLife Coach, helping people, mainly women, get their shit together at this very exciting, but also challenging time of life.  One of my current creative forays is a non-fiction proposal for a Manual on this very topic. It has evolved over time through a variety of versions, and with the support of my agent, is now ready to be unleashed on the unsuspecting publishing community (meaning, it has been ready for some time, but I am now ready to face the failure that inevitably comes with success). I had a couple of early rejections, both of which thankfully were beautifully wrapped in some really useful, and much appreciated, feedback.  Then a positive murmur from another publisher, which is still quietly humming in the background, unsure whether to break into actual song. Then another went so far as to request a meeting with me prior to their next editorial meeting.  The commissioning editor was extremely encouraging, and we bounced off each other as only two women who see how important it is for women like us to grab life by the hormones and get living, can do. She was also very honest. While she loves the manuscript and proposal, there were publishing issues that might prevent them taking it on; namely a very busy stable already for next year, and a timing issue.  When the rejection came, it was sore of course, (so close and all that), but more of a bruise than a laceration, because I have no intention of giving up. And frankly because I already feel like a semi-winner having a) finished it, b) had some decent feedback and c) feel like Stephen King who talks exquisitely about his rejection letters in his book On Writing and how important they are in shaping how we evolve as writers.  Yet when I told one of my daughters about it, she regaled the story back to her sisters, with the added social commentary of “Mum failed.”

“I didn’t fail,” I told her, genuinely surprised. “I just haven’t succeeded on this one yet.”

Like any product of the 21st century it seems, she hasn’t grasped the finer concepts of resilience.

“JK Rowling’s Harry Potter got rejected 15 times, Chicken Soup for the Soul 144 times, and Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart was rejected by 47 publishers before being accepted by the 48th and went on to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, so shove that in your Fail Theory box!”

What I know as a coach is that the greatest gift you can give yourself to achieve anything – write a book, run a marathon, start your own business, pursue your dream, go back to college – is the gift of learning how to be, and being ok with, feeling uncomfortable.

We don’t get to freewheel down a hill after our rolling boulder without first busting our lungs to get up it to the top.  Writing, like any endeavour that requires you to find something deep inside of yourself to conquer, is built on failure and rejection. The people who give up are the people who find that part too hard and uncomfortable.  We give up because its hard, without realising that it’s supposed to be hard!  Being hard means it’s working. Feeling like screaming and pulling your hair out means you are slowly, surely hitting that deep part of yourself you need to succeed.  I coach people on a number of issues but often it boils down to this: you have to learn how to cope with fear, anxiety and disappointment and then keep going DESPITE it.

I know this, not just because I’ve studied psychology, but because I’ve lived its brutal beauty through writing three books, training and running a marathon, and setting up a couple of businesses. There are always moments when you think it’s better to give up. It’s easy to confuse better with easier.

A few years ago I ran a marathon.  Whenever this is mentioned, people congratulate me and say ‘Wow, that must have been amazing!’ It was of course, but crossing that line is not what I think about when I look back on the impact of the whole marathon experience on my life (and not just because I was half dead and possibly hallucinating when I staggered over the line).  Crossing the finish line was only a tiny part of an extraordinary experience which included the training, the making mistakes, the building of stamina, resilience and muscle. It also included the psychological realisation that anyone’s body can biologically run a marathon because it’s been proven millions of times over that it’s physically possible, but that the crossing of the line depended far more on the mental stamina than the physical.  It relies far more on the ability to keep going when you want to sit down on the footpath and cry; it relies on the crazy commitment that drives you to jump in to a bath of ICE after a long run so your muscles don’t seize up; it relies on the mental marathon of thoughts that play out in your head that pushes each footstep in front of the next.

Writing is exactly the same. It’s not the book launch that signifies the success, not the signing of the deal, or even writing the words The End. It’s the daily decision to show up, sit down and write, even when it’s really hard. Even in the face of rejection.

Writers are subjected to the rejection ratio more than most, and so I see a rejection as validation I’m at least in the game. No rejections means no chance of reward. Writing is a life-long lesson in frustration, disappointment and rejection.  Once we accept this and not see these experiences as failure, we can actually then get on and enjoy the bonus bouts of creative expression, highs higher than clouds, and beautiful bursts of heart-busting pleasure.

A rejection letter is not failure. Not finishing the writing is failure.

Changing tack is not failure. Not learning from mistakes is failure.

Not getting published immediately is not failure. Giving up is failure.

Failure so often sits with that other awful F word – Fear; the fear of shame, embarrassment, not being good enough. But Will Smith said it well when he told the story of trying to step out of his comfort zone by doing a parachute jump. In the days before hand he was terrified, and couldn’t eat or sleep. He was miserable in his fear yet in all of those moments he was’t actually in any danger. Finally when the moment came when he fell (or was quite possibly pushed) out the plane, (the only time when rationally, he should have been terrified, because this was the only moment he was in actual danger) all he felt was exhilaration, and he later surmised, “The best things in life are on the other side of fear.”

Let’s not fear failure. Because then we are never in the game. Part of that game however, is learning to face, and then sit, with discomfort.  It’s about building writing muscle yes, but also inner mental resilience.

It’s about holding your nerve just before you reach the top of the hill, just when your arms are breaking from pushing the boulder up, just when you think you cannot take another step, or write another word. It’s about that very next moment and holding your nerve so you can step into it.

In her iconic agony column Dear Sugar before she was revealed as Cheryl Strayed, a young pretentious female writer wrote in saying she was a total failure because she hadn’t produced a masterpiece by the age of 28, and that no-one wanted to read about women’s issues and she was depressed.  Dear Sugar, barely sweetened her acerbic reply with one of the most lauded essays on writing*. She ended it with these powerful words:

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured? How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

So write. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

Our words will fill the page, but it is our thoughts that will keep them coming. Hold your nerve, especially if you can nearly see the top of the hill.

*You can read the full Dear Sugar essay here.

(c) Alana Kirk



About The Sandwich Years

The Sandwich Years is the heartfelt, inspirational story of the bond between mothers and daughters, and how one woman – through caring for the person she had relied on the most – finally found herself.

Alana Kirk, married with two children and a third on the way, often found herself stretched between the various demands on her time – parenting, marriage, work, friendship, self. But when her mother suffered a massive stroke, just days after the birth of daughter Ruby, Alana’s life became unrecognisable.

The next five years – ‘the sandwich years’ – were a time of heartbreak and difficult choices as Alana lost herself amid part-time caring for her mother, supporting her father and parenting three young daughters, while also attempting to get her career back on track. But it was also a time of growth and love as Alana rediscovered the joy her loved ones bring to her life, and learned how to find a way back to herself.

The Sandwich Years is a celebration of mothers and daughters, and everyday warriors.

(Previously published as Daughter, Mother, Me)

Pick up a copy online here.

About the author

Alana Kirk is a writer and journalist. She has travelled the world working for charities and writing their stories. When her Mum had a devastating stroke just four days after her third baby was born, her life was turned upside down. She began to blog about the struggles of being sandwiched between caring for the two ends of her life – her children and her parents. Over five years later, she is still stuck in the Sandwich Years, but finally found a way to thrive as well as survive. Alana still works for the non-profit sector as well as being a writer, and raising three girls.

  • www.designforwriters.com
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