Thursday, 24 May 2012

Why failing has made me free to succeed.

This is an unusually long post - possibly because it's been a long journey of discovery. I wanted to share with you my story in the hope that it might inspire and motivate - or even be of passing interest to anybody wanting to know me better. I'd love to hear your personal stories on this matter and so please leave a comment if you manage to get to the end of it x

Firstly the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are such interesting words – both of them are totally unwilling to be defined by a specific definition; they are as people say, relative. Yet if that is the case why does society seem to have such fixed and antiquated ideas about what success and failure look like?

I explore these ideas a lot with the children I teach. It's desperately sad to witness so many young people identify themselves as a failure when so young. I tell them that at their age, failure is a paradox; they haven’t had enough time to fail. And thinking about it, that applies to everybody, no matter what age you are. Sure there is a cut off when certain regrets can not be healed or made good – but they are a very, very long way off in anybody's existence.

Now please don’t shoot me, but I really don’t like ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ but studying it with my GCSE class I couldn’t help but stifle a genuine sob at the little vignette story of Mrs Dubose – a woman riddled with cancer and addicted to drugs who in the last days of her life wished to be free and independent. She’d seen it as an intense spiritual failure and she rectified it. Atticus calls her ‘The bravest women he ever knew’ and with this I sort of agree.

You see what makes us triumphant as human beings is not easily attaining our successes but the struggle of overcoming our failures.

When I ask my students to define what success looks like, too many of them invariably link it to the thorny issue of money – in all of its various veiled forms; big house, flash car, new game station, smart threads blah, blah, blah. So few of them mention the words 'happiness', 'family' or 'love' and it saddens me to think that this is the crock of crap 'the media' revels in perpetuating.

I’m not going to rant on about celebrity culture (trust me, I could) or ‘Reality T.V’ (I use the term ‘reality’ very loosely) perpetuating the myth that success is a tangible prize gained by being beautiful with a modicum of talent. I’m going to talk to you on a personal level about how sometimes success is taking a step back from the social merry-go-round and assessing what really makes you feel fulfilled and creative.

I came from a background in which things like college, university, ‘having a profession’ were the pinnacle of success. We lived in a small town and there was this particular road called St James road. It was the eighties and these faux Georgian, mini mansions with their theme-park classic Corinthian columns and mock Tudor leaded windows, were the palaces of the successful. People carriers graced the brick drives and mummy’s who didn’t have to work but spent their time on the sun-bed or bulk buying form catalogues, lounged around on department store furniture (Yeah I’m wiser now but to my developing brain this was glamorous – I brought into the dream.) St James road was where the dentists, doctors, business men and senior teachers lived. This was what I thought success looked like, and strangely even when I moved to London at eighteen and discovered that St. James Road was a very poor imitation of the kind of success you saw all around you in the leafy suburbs of Richmond upon Thames, I was still fooled by the notion of success. In a nutshell this is what I thought it was;
1. Owning a black woollen coat and pashmina (Annoraks and woollen scarves were de rigour in my homeland) 2. Owning a very expensive collection of leather handbags. 3. Competitive working hours – who can stay at work the longest producing bits of essential and important information. 4. Shopping at Waitrose and buying luxury wine and ready meals. 5. Having a really big title on your door – and a lot of keys (the more keys the more important) 6. Being able to go to a club and put your card behind the counter and drink champagne cocktails all night. 7. Going to a very ludicrously expensive gym which in fact you mainly used for the massage and restaurant facility.

There are more but I won’t bore you with the inane banality of them – you get the picture and this is the picture of my wonderful newly married, ‘Blairite’ twenties. We were both on incredibly ‘good’ money for our age and we had this thing called disposable income. (Remember those pre-recession days). Note how there is no mention of happiness, contentment, creativity, friends or family in that list.

Then in the eyes of ‘the institute’ I started to fail. We wanted a family, which meant maternity leave and a request for flexible working – “No, No, No” the suits shook their head. So I took a voluntary reduction in role and money (because that is what women still have to do in the 21st century) When I insisted on going home within contracted hours to collect my daughter from childcare “tut, tut, tut” went the suits. When I had to take time off to look after my daughter when she was too sick to go to the childminder – or our childminder was too sick to look after my daughter - I had to take unpaid leave.

And guess what – the promotions and the pay rises stopped, the demands and criticisms increased. I became de-skilled, overlooked, patronised, and talked-over in meetings. My male contemporaries who were still gliding up that greasy pole would pat me on the back and make sympathetic noises; telling me how wonderful I was at my job and how unfair the whole system was – which was nice of them but somewhat hollow as they weren’t prepared to do anything about it.

For a while I was angry – I still am in principle – but strangely, most of all I felt free. I stopped chasing and fighting and accepted. Suddenly I found myself with an intense energy, creativity and capability which it was clear did not fit in to the system and which I could use to pursue my own dream; the one which I had set aside at the age of eighteen as nothing more than a romantic notion linked to poverty and a slide into alcoholism.

I started to come home and rather than spending hours silently working at home on work projects which would be delivered by my line-manager as his, I started writing. I wrote the story that I had been carrying in my heart and head for the last decade. It wasn’t easy. Despite having qualified in the study of English / American literature up to Masters level and reading thousands of other people’s stories – I found the story telling process almost alien. I behaved like I thought writers aught to; I drank a lot of wine and stayed up until the midnight hours. I bashed out scenes believing the more pain I poured into them, the better they’d be. After a year, I had a manuscript and I brought a copy of the Writers’ and Artists book: ‘A must’ for any aspiring writer.

I printed off my opening chapters and made some pretty little promo postcards and colour co-ordinated folders. I aimed high (I was na├»ve!) and I waited anxiously for the post to arrive. And it did – rejection after rejection,

“No market”, “Great idea but not what we’re looking for”, “Thanks but no thanks”, “Shows promise but we’re full” or worse of all, the returned manuscript not even opened with a ‘compliments’ slip attached to the folder.

Failure.

Then in October 2010 a friend brought around a small cut out article from The Times. It was about a new product called Amazon Kindle and the idea of e-publishing. I jumped straight onto it despite the article suggesting that it was an idea that would never take off. I applied my work-skills and planned out a detailed strategy (I’m secretly a strategy and statistics geek – hard to believe I know) and pressed the publish button. Well it wasn’t quite that simple but this post is long enough already.

We’re now eighteen months down the line and I’ve two of the trilogy published, both consistently in the top 5-10,000 bestsellers and both having made it into the top 1,000 bestsellers of Amazon. ‘The Forest of Adventures’ Book One has been ranked a #1 Bestselling / Most popular Fairytale and both books have consistently sat in two or three #100 categories for the last twelve months. “No Market!” - I’d love to have a coffee with that agent.

I have an amazing readership and the most wonderful fan-base who engage with me daily, send me gorgeous fan mail and share the world I have created. I’ve had some incredible letters and I still can’t believe it when someone writes to me and tells me that my humble little books are amongst their favourite books of all time.

I’ve not started making enough pennies to quit the day job yet, but I do have an income which is large enough to pay the monthly food bill – which is a start. Now I just need to work on the books paying for the utilities and shelter and we’re done.

In indie publishing terms I am a long way off of being one of the superstars who have sold hundreds of thousands of books – I’m currently creeping towards 6,000 books but it’s increasing each month like a satisfying snowball – and I take reassurance in the statistic that of the thousands of ‘traditionally published’ books the average lifetime sales is around 5,000 copies, and in the world of indie publishing half of the books published sell no more than 100 copies.

I’m not trying to show-boat my success here – in fact you can see that my total honesty about where I’m at clearly shows to some there is still, in their opinion, little evidence of success yet – but do you know what – I am happy. I feel like finally I am using my talents and following my dream. I may be poorer, have a smaller title, far fewer keys, a second hand satchel from the car-boot sale and shop for our food at the local discount store but I finally think I am succeeding more than I ever have.

4 comments:

  1. Katie, I've just read your blog post, and I just had to say that I think it's inspiring. I've just finished university - I don't know what my degree will be yet (I'm thinking it'll be a 2:1, but we'll see!) and I don't have a job yet either. All through uni I've constantly compared myself to everyone else (and to one girl in particular) and whenever they beat me in coursework marks, or now, got a job before me, I've felt like a failure. But literally during the last few weeks, I've taken a step back and said to myself 'hang on, why should I feel like a failure?' Just because I don't have a job now, doesn't mean I won't in the future. And I know for a fact I'm not going to fail my degree course - so that's a plus! Instead of moping around and feeling annoyed and feeling as though I've failed, I've decided to do what I love best - write. For the first time in my life, I'm at a stage where I have a block of time that I can do whatever I want with, and I'm going to spend it writing the best novel I can. Not gonna lie, money is a tiny bit of an issue at the moment, but I am hoping to get a job soon! Until that day, however, I'm going to keep writing and prove to everyone, especially myself, that I am NOT a failure.
    Sorry for the long comment - but I just had to say how much your post inspired me. Off to write a bit more now! Ooh, and I'm also going to check out your book on Amazon :)!
    Rachel x

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    1. Hi Rachel,
      It's such a daunting time when you've left Uni and the job market is as it is. Thank you for your comment and I am so pleased that you are motivated to write.

      It's easy to be dismissive about money when you're trying to encourage people to 'follow their dream' but the reality is rent and food cost money. My advice is consider yourself a writer and do whatever job comes your way to keep the money ticking over and the bread on the table. Accepting low paid work is not a sign of 'coming to nothing' which is what some people like to suggest - it's all about stepping stones so try anything - think of the amazing varied experiences that will feed into your writing. You could make it part of your own challenge to see how many weird / different jobs you could do.

      Good luck with your degree results - that will make it all a lot easier in the long run. Keep in touch as you travel on your writer's journey and any time you want to drop me a line feel free.

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  2. Great post! Congratulations on all your success!

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    1. Thank you for stopping by and reading. Have a great weekend :)

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