Failing to Succeed: Australian Writers on Their Best Worst Failures

If you want to succeed, you have to be prepared to fail … and the bigger the hoped-for success, the bigger the canvas for potential failures to play out on.

We asked Australian writers to share their stories of so-called failures that paved the way for success, or inadvertently put them on the path to achievement. Some learned that success doesn’t always look the way you imagine, others find that pushing past disappointment pays off, and for others, abandoned career paths prove weirdly useful later in life.

With Graeme Simsion, Toni Jordan, Joel Deane, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Justin Heazlewood, Angela Savage, Sam Cooney and Brigid Delaney.

Graeme Simsion

Well, there’s the 25-year career in information technology… But then, after deciding that I could learn to write, and selling my consulting business with that in mind, I enrolled in a PhD in creativity … in database design. What was I thinking? Closure? Bucket list? A flight to something safe? I suspect my motivation was akin to that which sets us to cleaning the garage instead of writing.

It took me four years, part-time. It did contribute, in a small way, to my writing career. I got a setting for The Rosie Project, practice in working alone on a large piece of writing, and knowledge of the creative process. And I earned the thing that everyone suspected I was after – the title of doctor. Which my GP wryly added to my patient profile.

Three years later, that GP sent me for a blood test. I was feeling pretty sick, and asked if I could have the results expedited. The nurse started to argue, then saw my title on the form. ‘Of course, Doctor.’ That indulgence got me to the emergency room 24 hours earlier and quite possibly saved my life.

Graeme Simsion is the author of The Rosie Project (Text). The sequel, The Rosie Effect, is due in September.

Toni Jordan

I’m very cautious about using words like ‘success’ or ‘failure’. I think they’re both a lot of rubbish, actually. I dislike the whole idea of categories like that and I object to forcing all the things that make up my wonderful, fortunate, messy life into two groups. There is no celestial checklist. I never think: if this book sells X copies, it’ll be a success and if it sells X-1, it’s a failure.

I’ve certainly had manuscripts and relationships and jobs that I’ve left behind but I work hard to focus on the process, on every minute of every day. That’s what it’s about: just me and the work and this thing we’ve got going together. When I think about my professional life, I feel like I’m up there on the high diving board, steeling myself to jump.

I object to the whole idea of a group of judges sitting on the sideline, waiting to hold up cards with numbers on them — even if one of the judges is me.

Toni Jordan’s latest book is Nine Days (Text).

Joel Deane

When I was living in San Francisco, a wise friend told me that the danger with depression was that, when you’re all alone in that dark room, it feels like it will never end. Is eternal. That advice came in handy during the decade when, for a great many reasons I’d rather not go into, I didn’t publish anything. Not a book, not a story, not a poem, not a word. At the time, that was a disaster. I felt as though I was underwater, unable to surface. Stopped thinking of myself as a writer. Couldn’t find a way out of that dark room. It took a while, but I found the door (it was in the ceiling, not the wall), and started to write again and publish again and become the sort of person I could live with.

That experience came in handy two years ago when, at the age of 43, I had a stroke. This time, the circumstances were tougher, but I was stronger. Unlike last time, I didn’t panic about the fact that I could barely read, let alone write. Instead, I focused on the day to day grind of getting myself (literally) up and running again, focused on the people I love (my wife and children) and told myself that there was no rush – that the words would come back when they were ready. And I was right. The words have come back. I’m a writer again. I’m not extinct. Not yet.

Joel Deane is a poet, novelist and former speechwriter. His novel is The Norseman’s Song (Hunter Publishing).

Ambelin Kwaymullina

What is success? I thought I knew, because all I have ever wanted to do was write a novel. Once I had achieved this dream I imagined I would have this amazing moment in which birds would sing, music would play, and light would shine down from above. So when my YA novel The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was released, I went and stood in front of it in a bookstore. And waited. But nothing happened. No birds, no lights, no Handel’s Hallelujah chorus playing somewhere in the background … something had gone terribly wrong.

Months later, I was running a writing workshop for disadvantaged teens. There was one girl who wanted desperately to be a writer, and who was the only one in the group brave enough to have her work read out. At the end of the session I gave her the copy of the book I had with me, and said, ‘Sometimes courage is rewarded.’ She just about burst into tears – and that was my moment. And I realised the reason the book hadn’t meant anything to me when it was sitting on a shelf was that I couldn’t hear it speaking to the people I’d written it for.

I had come terrifyingly close to committing the failure that leads to all others: the failure to understand what matters. It is a lesson I have never forgotten. I still volunteer some of my time to run workshops; often other adults will tell me that the teenagers I teach are privileged to have me there. They are wrong of course, as the grown-ups of this world so often are. It is my privilege to be with them.

Ambelin Kwaymullina is the author of the Tribe series (Walker Books).

Justin Heazlewood

In 2012 I self-produced my own stage show/musical called The Bedroom Philosopher’s High School Assembly. It had a budget of $10,000 (funded myself) and was at the Forum Theatre which cost $16,000 to hire for ten shows. Despite selling 1200 tickets during Melbourne Comedy Festival, I lost a tonne of money, and embarrassingly, wasn’t able to pay any of the 20 cast members. This was a clear-cut financial disaster (and still is, as I pay off one credit card with another). It left me so ashamed and down and out that I was spiritually compelled to write about it.

This flashpoint of anxiety acted as the nucleus which gave birth to my book Funemployed. Without a train-wreck, there’s no story. I felt enough pain to warrant spilling my guts about my entire artistic operation and what wasn’t working. I’m now getting grateful feedback from fellow artists around Australia. Go art! Spinning shit into gold since 1980.

Justin Heazlewood is the author of Funemployed: Life as an Artist in Australia (Affirm Press).

Angela Savage

What turned out to be the most significant step in my career came about as a result of failure. It was 1992 and I’d secured a grant to conduct research into women’s risk of HIV in Laos. I made arrangements to work in collaboration with a local institute and planned to stay away six months. But a week before I was due to leave Australia, all my best-laid plans fell to pieces. I postponed my departure and spent several weeks contacting anyone I could find who worked in Laos or had an interest in HIV in the region. I offered my research skills and findings free of charge in exchange for visa sponsorship. I met a lot of interesting people, none of whom could help me.

In the end, I decided to go to Laos. I’d been issued with a one-month visa and figured this was long enough to know whether there was any point being there. Within two weeks, I had a volunteer role at the United Nations Development Program, helping to organise the first national conference on HIV/AIDS in Laos. That led to a job with the Australian Red Cross in HIV program development, and my six-month stay turned into more than six years in Southeast Asia.

Had I left Australia expecting everything to go according to plan, I doubt I would’ve lasted a week in Laos. Having virtually no expectations was the best possible preparation I could have had.

But then I put my career in international development on hold and returned to Australia to write fiction full-time and nurture my dream of becoming a published author. It took seven years, and multiple rejections and rewrites, but my Victorian Premier’s Award winning unpublished manuscript was eventually published as Behind the Night Bazaar in 2006.

This has basically become my career pattern: to seize interesting opportunities for paid employment when they arise, only to later turn my back on ‘success’ in these areas in order to write more books. Most recently, in March this year, I left a very happy workplace to enrol in a PhD in Creative Writing and write full-time.

To be honest, I’ve lost sight of what it means to succeed and to fail when it comes to my career. By some measures, I am a complete failure, neglecting to fulfil my potential, squandering opportunities, substituting dreams and risks for a stable income and job security. But to live an artistic life in this day and age, even intermittently, is such a privilege; to write feels like the greatest success of all.

Angela Savage is a crime writer whose latest novel is The Dying Beach (Text).

Sam Cooney

The biggest mistake I made as far as pursuing a career (ultimately in the industry of words: writing them, editing them, publishing them, teaching them, etc), one that would be of worth to both me and others, was to listen to the one-dimensional/cardboard cut-out ‘careers counsellor’ at the uber-conservative private boys high school I attended as a very malleable teenager, which ended up with me enrolled in a Bachelor of Business (Marketing), straight outta Year 12, when I would’ve actually only needed the slightest prodding to be convinced that a career as a writer or word-worker was even possible. I ‘completed’ three whole semesters of this BBus (with long overseas breaks in between semesters as I ran away from life), often driving to the university and then sleeping in my car for however many hours I was supposed to be in lectures and tutes before driving back home to my parents' place to lie about how much I’d learned about Maslow’s bullshit hierarchy and Herzberg’s misguided theories as to what makes us do things and whatever other bilge I’d occasionally absorb by osmosis by being even near the Business Faculty of Monash University. It was one day, when I was in the middle of giving a 30-minute Powerpoint presentation about Woolworths' supply chain to a class of disinterested Marketing Planning and Implementation (MKF3121) students, that I decided fuck this, walked out the door as soon as I’d finished the presentation, got in my beat-up 1985 200,000kms+ champagne-coloured BMW, went to a pub, and then home to start looking at writing degrees at any and all of the universities that exist on planet earth. One accepted me; I still have my business textbooks to remind me of what once was.

After I’d done a few semesters of this writing degree and was in my early twenties and ready to implement my good self upon the world, I was turned down — super politely and professionally, in a terrifying face-to-face meeting with Sophie Cunningham — for an internship with Meanjin (at least partly only because they took on very few interns at that time and there was no room for me, but also partly because I wasn’t up to the standard required [the interns at that time were people like Jessica Au and Ian See, just outrageously talented and hardworking humans], which was a big blow to my confidence as someone who wanted to be involved in the industry of words. But instead I just ‘pulled up my britches’ and ended up interning with Sleepers Publishing, which taught me how a love of literature can overcome skyscraperishly tall and mountainously wide obstacles, and with Griffith Review, which taught me the value of cold hard professionalism, and then I joined the editorial committee at Voiceworks, and was suddenly in a groove that was heading in a direction that made my guts churn excitedly.

Sam Cooney is publisher and editor of The Lifted Brow.

Brigid Delaney

When I finished university, I travelled around Europe for a year, then took up a job that had been arranged before I left – an article clerk at a law firm, in a small country town on the border of SA and Victoria.

The job was hard won. It was the middle of a recession and there was an oversupply of law graduates. After six years of study, I was determined to be a lawyer – even if it meant living five hours from the nearest city.

I didn’t really fit into the small town. I had nowhere to live, so spent my first months living in the local caravan park. With no driver’s licence or car, I felt trapped there – unable to get away on weekends. I didn’t play netball or enjoy watching local football, so I found it difficult to make new friends. And as for the law? I was okay, but as I walked back and forth to the court room – helping clients get intervention orders, fight drug and assault charges or mediate a fence dispute – I wondered how long I would last.

Things did improve. I got my driver’s license … but promptly had a car accident, and racked up speeding fines. I made some friends and enjoyed terrifyingly boozy nights at the local pub appropriately named the Iron Bar – where I’d nod at but try and avoid clients of mine, who drank with intent at the end of the bar.

And, gradually, I got into the swing of being a junior lawyer. On a good day, you could have described my work as good – but I would never be great.

I was 25, and I wondered if this was it – nights at the Iron Bar, bakery lunches, waiting in the old, cold courtroom for my clients names to be called. Slowly paying off the debts from my car accident. (I was, unfortunately, not insured.)

All this time, I was writing a book about a debauched protagonist who works as a young lawyer. She is barely competent at her job – rocking up late most days, disabled by hungovers. Only when she is sacked is she liberated, and able to pursue the career she really wants.

I see now the book was just a way of trying to steer myself towards a different path – if only in my head. I stayed with the law, but changed firms, and eventually I did lose my job … and became a writer.

I could have saved myself six years of study and a couple of years working in the country, and just gone straight into books and journalism – but I look back at that time with real fondness now. Yes, I was sort of a mess, and yes, I barely rose above mediocre. But without the mediocre years, I would not have been propelled to write a book that fictionalised my escape.

Brigid Delaney is an author and journalist. Her latest book is Wild Things.

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