There’s an old box file in my desk filled entirely with junk. As with so much junk, I’ve a sentimental attachment to it and can’t quite bring myself to throw it away; besides, I can’t help but feel that it might come in handy one day, though it almost certainly won’t. Here I keep all those writing projects that never quite came to fruition. There are short stories that failed to fulfil their early promise, novellas that didn’t quite work out, and stunted novels that never even reached “completed first draft” status.
One of the most notable additions to my junk file is a novel that I worked on for several years, but could never quite complete. It’s a pitiful thing in many ways – unfinished, deeply flawed, laughably ambitious in scope and lamentably amateurish in execution – and yet it remains, in a curious sense, one of the things that I’ve written of which I am most proud. (Not so proud that I’d ever consider publishing it, you’ll be relieved to hear.) It was my first serious attempt at writing a novel, for one thing: I lived with it, and indeed in it, for a long time. I scribbled away at it during lulls in my boring office job. I worked on it during long nights in my grimy, freezing cold, woodlouse-infested bedsit in Cardiff – a place that I also remember with affection, not because it was nice (it was awful), but because it was the first place where I truly lived on my own. I bored my then-boyfriend almost to tears with my endless monologues about it, which is perhaps why that particular relationship was destined to failure.
For a first attempt it was bold – hilariously so, I realise with hindsight. It was set during the English Civil War, and concerned the deeds and misdeeds of an adulterous, depressive alcoholic. (Yes, I really did think that this could work. I was very young.) Together with the effort of writing it came the exertion of researching it, and so alongside the manuscript there are pages of notes and printed internet pages: maps of London circa 1640, jottings about 17th century medicine and astrology, obscure Biblical quotations, and copies of contemporary ballads and propaganda pamphlets. (To this day, I’m a mine of information about the period. If you ever need to know about the likely contents of a Parliamentarian soldier’s snapsack, or the details of Archbishop Laud’s reforms to Church of England liturgy, I’m your woman.)
Sadly, though, it all came to nothing. The novel never really worked, and eventually just ran out of steam altogether. Today, it’s a curiosity – something I glance at occasionally and fondly, snort with laughter over, and then put away. And yet I’d be loath to call it a failure.
This awkward first attempt taught me more about the craft of writing than almost anything else. It taught me, apart from anything, how incredibly hard it is, and how laughably wide of the mark people are when they talk nonchalantly about “writing a novel one day”, as if it were as simple a matter as taking a trip to Cornwall or growing watercress. Lesson Number 1 for aspiring writers is, perhaps, just how tricky writing can be. As Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Most planned novels probably never get past the development stage; just finishing what you’ve begun requires hard work, determination, aptitude, and more than a touch of pure mulishness.
The next step – showing your baby to eyes other than your own – requires the hide of a rhinoceros. My Civil War novel was (happily) never widely distributed, but of those who did read it, one or two were really quite scathing about it – with good reason, as I recognise in hindsight. At the time, of course, such a philosophical reaction was impossible. I shrank back into my shell, quietly lamenting my failure, and for a while vowed never to put pen to paper ever again.
Nowadays I’m tougher, but still, the ever-present spectre of failure looms large on the authorial landscape. Your belief in your work may be unshakable, but as to what the wider world will make of it – ah, that’s another matter altogether. And what of those works that even you recognise to be unequivocal letdowns? The ones that got away? Those projects that began with such hope, and died with such pain? They sit at the bottom of your desk drawer, a constant reminder of your limitations and the importance of humility. And yet they are also a token of your evolution, and of the occasionally painful progress from wannabe to gonnabe.
“All my successes,” said Benjamin Disraeli, “have been built on my failures.” He might have been talking about politics, but the point is equally valid in relation to writing.