Monday, 4 April 2011

Embrace Your Failures

The opening speaker at the York Festival of Writing was David Nobbs, novelist and creator of the successful Reggie Perrin character. His speech was frank and honest. He spoke about his writing life and was upfront about his failures.

As writers we face failure on a regular basis. Perhaps we sit down to write an article, short story or novel scene, but for whatever reason, the writing doesn't flow. Perhaps we send off our writing, only to have it rejected. Perhaps we send off a series of email pitches and hear nothing back. If any profession has any experience of failure, it's writing!

But David Nobbs was quite clear - every writer needs failure. Without failures, we cannot appreciate success. Often, it is failure that spurs us onto our successes.

Before David Nobbs had the success he did with Reggie Perrin, he'd had a go at writing a situation comedy set in a lighthouse. He told us that he's analysed the popular situation comedy, Steptoe and Son, and realised that the characters were trapped by their circumstances. So, make a couple of characters as lighthouse keepers and keep them isolated on their own in a lighthouse and you have people that are quite literally trapped. It didn't work and a second series wasn't commissioned.

Nobbs explained how difficult this failure was to come to terms with. But it inspired him to write something else. And along came Reggie Perrin.

There are a couple of quotes I want to share with you. David said:

"Accept that you will write good stuff and that you will also write bad things."

"If a day's writing isn't working, then go and do something else - cricket, the pub - anything. BUT DON"T DO THIS TWO DAYS RUNNING!"

I think both statements are valid. Even the most famous of writers don't write perfect prose every time. In fact some of it may be pretty naff! But, of course, we only see the good stuff of their writing, whereas we see both the good and the bad that we write!

And on those occasions when the words won't flow, it seems pointless sitting there trying to force them out. Getting up and doing something completely different can help to stimulate the creative juices. Although, as David says, don't stay away from your writing for too long. Writers are supposed to write!

Often, when we write something and send it off, we have an idea of how it will succeed. An article will be accepted and published in a magazine, a short story will win a competition, a novel will be snapped up by a publisher. When what we envisage fails to happen, we perceive it as a failure. However, every piece of writing we produce helps us to develop and grow as a writer. Even if that piece did not succeed as we intended, it still helps us to progress along our journey of being a writer.  Without tasting the bitterness of rejection, we don't appreciate the sweetness of success.

David Nobbs finished his talk with, "When you write, enjoy it, because at least one person has!" And next time a piece of writing fails to achieve the dreams you held for it, just remember that the writing has helped you to grow as a writer, and your next effort may just be the success that you dream of.

Good luck.


  1. I have three days a week when I'm not caring for my daughter. That's my writing time and if it's not flowing I do sit and crank out each word like pulling a tooth. It's excruciating, but weirdly I can write quite good stuff that way. It's not enjoyable, but it works for me. Don't know if I could always do it though - the flow days keep me motivated.

  2. Great advice as always, Simon. I agree with you. I used to see rejection as a sign that my writing was rubbish and would be reluctant to write and send my work out. But now when a rejection comes I just re jig it and send it out again or I'll work on something else.

    Rejection signifies progress in a writer's career - they've made the effort and had courage to send their work out there. We have to start somewhere.


  3. Great advice. And like Julie, I can see that even a rejection is a new opinion and an opportunity. I'm developing the pre-requisite thick-skin fast.