The other day, a pretty miserable day in general as it happens, I discovered my novel hadn’t made it from the longlist to the shortlist of a well known competition. All in all, it was a ‘I’m this close to throwing in the towel’ kind of day.
It set me thinking about another, very different day, some time ago, when I was invited to an event hosted by an Olympic swimmer. This personable and articulate man in his late twenties was giving a masterclass to a group of talented young swimmers, which began in the pool and ended on dry land with a talk and powerpoint presentation. The powerpoint opened with a photo of the swimmer at the end of his race after making his Olympic debut. Clenched fist pumping the air, broad smile on his face. Living the dream.
After this, there appeared on the screen a long list of failures. Failure to qualify for national competitions as a youngster. Failure to make national finals. Failure to be selected for European teams, Commonwealth teams, World Championships teams. Failure after failure after failure. Often he came close to these goals, only to fail by a few hundredths of a second. Sometimes, he simply came nowhere near.
Still, he had a dream: to swim at the Olympics. And after all these failures, one day everything finally fell into place and he made it. He swam at the Olympics. It wasn’t a complete fairytale ending. He didn’t win a medal. He didn’t make a final. He didn’t make a semi-final. He didn’t even win his heat. But, he did realise his dream and the photo of him punching the air and grinning broadly showed that he was absolutely over the moon about it.
Now, he gets to wear the GB kit and travel the country talking to potential young Olympians about his success. Or rather, about his failures. And how all those failures preceded, nurtured, and made possible, his success.
You know what I’m going to say next, right? Yes: the same is true for the majority of successful writers. They too are acquainted with failure. Instead of rejection by team selectors, they have known rejection by agents and publishers and competition judges. The comparison is easily drawn, the message simple: keep swimming; keep writing; learn from your failures; never give up.
But then, I ask myself, what about all those writers who don’t make it? The ones for whom rejection never ends?Just as there are plenty of supremely talented swimmers in the world who train like dogs, but who never quite make the team, so there are bloody good writers out there whose work never sees the light of day.
Successful people in any field will tell you that if only you keep going and believing, one day it will happen for you too. But, there are no guarantees. The chances, in fact, are much more likely that it won’t.
So, what should I do? Go take up patchwork? Well, no, I guess I shall keep writing. Not because I believe in the dream (whatever that is) but because I believe in what I’m doing. Or rather, I believe in myself doing it. Writing is the thing for me. It makes me tick. It keeps me sane. On the shortlist, or off the shortlist. With a publisher, or without. For a readership of one thousand, or one.
Let’s think about this for a moment: was it purely just that one minute and a few seconds’ worth of racing (100m breaststroke) that gave that Olympic swimmer’s life its meaning? Was it worth all the pain and misery of years and years of hard training and harsh knock backs just for that fleeting moment of relatively unnoticed glory?
Or was there something in him that actually liked getting up at 4.30 on a dark winter’s morning to go pounding relentlessly up and down the pool? And that liked going back again in the evening for more physical and mental punishment? I believe there must have been. Something in him loved the process. Otherwise, why, in the face of all the odds, would he have kept at it?
In the end, there is no success or failure. There is only doing what you want to do.