I entered the Mslexia short story competition this year. My favourite writer, Janice Galloway, was the judge, so it was a must. It’s an excellent competition in an excellent magazine. I sent what I consider finished, polished, strong work, and got nowhere. Ah well, that’s the way it goes. I put a flippant post up about it on Facebook, and was heartened by the responses I got, both on the post and in private messages. Many writer friends entered this competition and didn’t make it either. Amongst them are a couple of poets who have collections published, short story authors, again with published collections, and a few published novelists. Professional writers with awesome CV’s entered and failed. That they shared this with me was enormously helpful so I thought I’d share it here in the hope it helps someone else too. I know the quality of these women’s writing. They are damn good. So, let’s remember that another judge may have picked a different final six. What resonates with me may not with you. It’s easy enough to weed out bad writing, but when you have, say, thirty stories all containing good quality writing, it will be about what speaks to the individual reader. If I read the stories belonging to the writers I spoke with on facebook I’m fairly sure I would favour one over the others despite knowing they are all fine writers.

A writer who has judged several competitions told me she only ever sees the entries the first readers have decided should make up the long-list. Who knows, Galloway may have adored my words if she’d ever got to read them, but my genius went unrecognised in the initial sifting process. (Yeah, ok, unlikely, but hey, it’s my thought, I can have it if I want.)

I’ve won competitions before, and I’ve obviously lost them too. Winning is a delightful, validating, endorsement. Losing is a huge blow. It makes you question your worth as a writer. One of the things that was discussed on my Facebook page was that some of the writers had gone back over their entries and were truly surprised to not be able to see obvious edits they could make. I do a great line in self hatred, and the first thought on losing is usually that the story isn’t good enough, and that one was delusional in thinking it might have stood a chance. That’s nonsense, the same story that flops in one place can, and does, succeed elsewhere. That’s not to say improvements can’t be made. Do re-read with a critical eye – change what leaps out, then look for somewhere fabulous to submit to. Keep going. Remember why you write in the first place. I don’t write in the hope of winning competitions, I write because I have this impulse to fictionalise things. It’s part of my being. If I can then share those words and communicate with people, then all the better. If I can get recognition for it, well, better still. Financial recompense would be amazing. I’d love to win ALL the competitions and be published everywhere, but even if I never win anything again, I’m going to keep on writing. Don’t lose sight of the heart of your words. Oh, and to the person who told me (kindly) it might be off-putting to potential publishers to mention failures, I don’t believe that is true.

In his superb book “The Antidote” Oliver Burkeman has this to say about failure:

Fortunately, developing a healthier approach to failure may be easier than you’d think. The work of the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that our experiences of failure are influenced overwhelmingly by the beliefs we hold about the nature of talent and ability – and that we can, perhaps quite straightforwardly, nudge ourselves towards a better outlook. Each of us can be placed somewhere on a continuum, Dweck argues, depending on our “implicit view” – or unspoken attitude – about what talent is and where it comes from. Those with a “fixed theory” assume that ability is innate; those with an “incremental theory” believe that it evolves through challenge and hard work. If you’re the kind of person who strives mightily to avoid the experience of failure, it’s likely that you reside near the “fixed” end of Dweck’s continuum. Fixed-theory people approach challenges as occasions on which they are called upon to demonstrate their innate abilities, and so they find failure especially horrifying: to them, it’s a sign that they tried to show how good they are, but didn’t measure up. The classic example is the young sports star encouraged to think of himself as a “natural” – but who then fails to put in sufficient practice to realise his potential. If talent is innate, his unspoken reasoning goes, then why bother?
Incremental-theory people are different. Because they think of abilities as emerging through tackling challenges, the experience of failure has a completely different meaning for them: it’s evidence that they are stretching themselves to their current limits. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t fail. The relevant analogy here is with weight training: muscles grow by being pushed to the limits of their current capacity, where fibres tear and reheal. Among weightlifters, “training to failure” isn’t an admission of defeat – it’s a strategy.
Happily, Dweck’s studies indicate that we are not saddled for life with one mindset rather than another. Some people manage to alter their outlook simply by being introduced to the fixed versus incremental distinction. Alternatively, it’s worth trying to recall it next time failure strikes: next time you flunk an exam, or mishandle a social situation, consider that it’s happening only because you’re pushing at the limits of your present abilities.

You can read a little more here.  I’m hoping to learn how to see failure as an essential part of life, and stop being so afraid of it – I’m definitely more of a fixed theory person and am hoping to persuade my mind to allow me to become more of an incremental kinda gal.

9 thoughts on “Failure”

  1. I tend to assume the shortlisters are idiots – this has got me through many a short story competition 'failure' 🙂 But really, competitions are lotteries. However good your work is, not everyone will like it – and chances are, the longlister/shortlister will simply miss what's good about it.

  2. Really thought provoking post. Having just 'lost' a competition I was heavily invested in I can relate. What is most interesting though is how much of myself I can see in the quote you post from The Antidote. The 'fixed theory' perspective pretty accurately describes my view of my writing prior to 2008. I pissed away a good number of years writing and not subbing and, worse, just not writing, ham-strung by the view, along with an overly critical view of my first drafts which I thought should be beautiful slices of brilliance if I was any good. And lets not even talk about how I figured it wasn't worth the effort as I would never be as good as the writers I love. Since enrolling on my first writing course in 2008 I have worked hard to foster the incremental view. I'm still not as good as the writers I love, and I likely never will be, but I am much better writer than I was five years ago, which tells me that if I keep doing what I am doing I'll be a better writer still in another five. The key factor in helping me achieve this is comparing my writing to my previous work rather than anyone else's. If it ain't better than me a month, six months, a year ago I go back to blank screen and start again. And each time we sub to a new, more respected market/prize and get rejected we fail better. I suppose if we writers are doing things right, we'll never be happy with the work, and as we move on and up the arenas of our failure will actually show the new levels of our success.

  3. I definitely see failures as a learning opportunity and a challenge to do better next time. I don't think I've always felt this resilient, however. There have been one or two comps that my failure to be shortlisted for left me feeling crushed and rubbish. Mslexia, I've decided, just isn't that into me. I'm OK with that. Onwards, next challenge.The Burkeman excerpt you chose is helpful, as was the candidness from other writers about their failures; knowing I was a failure along with so many writers I admire made me feel successful somehow. Great post.

  4. Frances – I like your style! Dan – interesting that you have been able to see that change in yourself. I am definitely "fixed" in my thinking, and really need to be more ok with failure. Even though I find Burkeman's quote wonderful, there's part of me that feels I'll never be able to accept failure as me pushing against the limits of where I am, because I'll always be resentful of my limitations. Any excuse for self loathing!Also, I'm never as good to satisfy myself even. There's that awful gap between what I sense is the story and what I am able to make the story.

  5. Very late commenting on this… I love this post/discussion though. I actually bought The Antidote, but foolishly lent it to someone before reading it, which was 2 months ago. I'm tempted just to buy it again as I have a big tendency in general to view all of life in terms of succeed/fail, which just causes me to be super pissed off about things that are probably irrelevant, actually.

  6. I know that you wrote this months ago but I’ve just found it now! It’s a very thought-provoking post. Having only recently started to put any time into my writing, and having also experienced my first rejection it’s reassuring to hear it happens to everyone! And I love the quote by Oliver Burkeman – I must remember to try and be an incremental thinker! It makes total sense. Thanks!

    1. Maddy, I’m glad you’ve found the post useful. It really is helpful to try and see rejection in a positive way (not always possible). Well done on submitting and getting your words out. Your rejection is a stepping stone to where you want to be. Good luck with it.

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