Originally Posted: February 18th 2010 by Neil Robinson
Failing Better Now?
I’ve been working on a BIG project. The plot tackled grand themes, spanned decades and was highly complex. Stylistically, it was experimental. It was all planned out, and I was about a quarter of the way through the actual writing.
Then a family crisis occurred and I had to stop working on it for a while. I finally went back to my BIG project on one of those rainy days when the whole world – or, at least, my section of Essex – seems sodden. Birds perch on garden fences looking as if they’re trying to put a brave face on things; as if they might, after uttering a feeble chirp, drop dead on to the lawn and become food for some bedraggled anorexic cat which will choke on a jagged splinter of fragile wing bone. I read through my magnum opus and experienced a moment of clarity: my work wasn’t complex, it was just chaotic. It wasn’t experimental, it was pretentious crap. Ooops.
At times like this I stare out at the garden for solace. The three birch trees I had planted in a tasteful little triangle would look pretty when they came into leaf. But it wasn’t a tasteful triangle. The trees were much too close together and would soon grow far too big for my suburban garden. My neighbours would inevitably complain about branches looming over their patios and roots causing their extensions to subside. The hours I’d spent watching my old VHS tapes of Ground Force had been wasted. Clearly, I’d been fixated on Charlie Dimmock’s unfettered charms when I should have been taking notes as Alan Titchmarsh dispensed wisdom. I’d failed again.
At times like this I ignore my soggy, shabby little garden and turn to the words of great men for solace. James Joyce (1882 – 1941…I think it makes me seem erudite if I insert the dates of great men’s lives) once said: “A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Comforting words, except that I saw little evidence of genius when I looked in the mirror; and absolutely no evidence of that mysterious condition when I looked at my garden or my BIG project.
Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989) once said (or wrote; I’m not sure): “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Which reminds me of the time I heard a sports commentator tell a tennis player – one of those never-say-die-battlers – that he must “really hate losing”. The player, who had just been defeated by a younger man, laughed and said he didn’t hate it at all because the majority of professional tennis players, over the course of their careers, will lose more matches than they win.
And now I’m reminded of the words of the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), who wrote (or maybe just said): “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Maybe curves are beautiful in their own way. The art historian EH Gombrich (1909 – 2001) wrote (definitely wrote) that the painter tends to “see what he paints rather than paint what he sees”. I think this applies to all artists and would-be artists, not just painters. And perhaps I need to adjust my vision to appreciate crooked things.
I think I’ll cut down two of the birch trees and use their slightly crooked timber to make a coffee table. A good friend of mine once made a coffee table for a school project. Paul (1960 – ) knew that coffee tables should be low. Unfortunately his was so low that his dad, invited to admire his son’s handiwork, tripped over it and broke his ankle. I don’t know what Paul is doing now, but I hope he’s learned to fail better. I’m trying to do the same. I’m trying not to hate it.
Published Works: Oliphan Oracus available on Immanion Press