Learning to Fail: 2013 365 Challenge #176

Me in sixth form (it was fancy dress, btw)

Me in sixth form (it was fancy dress, btw)

I stumbled across a great post in my reader today, about how hard it is for perfectionists to succeed. I used to think I was a perfectionist. I grew in a household of high expectations, particularly with regards to academic achievement.

I was the Straight A girl. When I got caught smoking by the dinner ladies, the first time I dared take a drag on school property, they threatened to suspend me for two weeks (or maybe it was two days, I can’t remember. With a single working mother, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was two hours, she still would have killed me). It took tears and form tutor intervention for the head of year to relent.

People got caught smoking all the time. A different head of year once told me to caution my bad-boy boyfriend (another story!) to stop smoking or he’d have to give him detention. Detention! Why was I threatened with  suspension? Because I was one of the top pupils, who won all the awards and aced all the exams. Apparently I was setting a bad example to the younger kids I was caught with. (Never mind it was their cigarettes I was smoking and I was only there in a supportive role to a friend who had received some bad news).

Anyway, I digress. Being the best was important. But at least at school perfectionism is quantifiable. You get the grades, pass the exams, win the awards. You don’t make many friends or learn any hobbies, but that doesn’t seem important. What’s worse is, you never learn to fail.

Parkinson Building, University of Leeds by David Martin (no relation)

Parkinson Building, Leeds Uni by David Martin (no relation)

My first failure was not being accepted into the youth orchestra. (Apart from losing at sport, I did a lot of that, but sport is softly uncompetitive in state schools, so it rarely hurt.) It hurt not to get into the youth orchestra but I knew I was rubbish at violin and, besides, my Mum would have hated driving me an hour each way on a Saturday.

Then I failed to get into Cambridge University. But I was able to blame my tutors for lack of preparation (and I didn’t really want to go and was happy to get into the redbrick that was my first choice). The only thing that hurt was the snotty rejection letter, which I wish I still had! I even passed my driving test first time, goodness knows how.

There’s a theme, can you see? Until I graduated from university, I never failed at anything I cared about. Aside from relationships, and that’s a whole different endless anecdote.

Then I didn’t get a job I really, truly wanted. I was devastated. Crushed. I was a failure. I’d gone for something important to me, and I had not got it. Life over. Then, when I did finally get a job, I had a nervous breakdown before two years were out. Why? Because I couldn’t accept not being able to do everything that was thrown at me to the best of my ability. I couldn’t accept less than perfection. I was helping run a Guide unit, doing their accounts, training to be a leader and doing the Queen’s Guide award, working twelve hour days more often than not, and trying to keep up with new friends.

Making Pancakes

Making Pancakes

And I’d never learned how to fail, how to say no, how to say help! It took another twelve years for me to discover what my husband has always known: sometimes 65% is enough.

Now, with parenting, with friends, with housework, with my writing, I have learned that accepting good enough doesn’t mean I’m lazy, doesn’t mean I’m a bad person and certainly doesn’t mean I’ve failed. Too many times the kids have heard me say to my husband I’ve failed because I couldn’t find a school jumper, we ran out of nappies or the kids only ate pancakes for dinner.

The children had pancakes for dinner today. Cupboards are bare because the shopping doesn’t come until tomorrow. I haven’t failed. They’re fed. They had strawberries with them. They’ll eat veg tomorrow.

Kristen Lamb’s blog teaches that writers need to Ship. Whether it’s blog posts or novels, the only way to get better is to finish, get it out there and, if need be, fail. Writing a daily blog has taught me to ship: There are days I know my prose is nearer 40% than 80% but, hey, no one is grading me anymore, and the best I can do is hope to write something better the following day. Consistency is better than perfection.

What I have learnt, from the post I read today, and Kristen Lamb and others, is that the key is to fail forwards. Learn, move on, don’t dwell. It’s okay to fail.

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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Claire peered through the hatch, trying to ignore the stench of body odour coming from the man next to her. Breathing through her mouth, Claire focussed her gaze on the pewter sky and resisted the urge to tut. Red kites were impressive, granted, but they flew regularly over her parents’ house. She didn’t need to wait in a dim shed just to watch a bunch of them being fed. Her mum’s next door neighbour had a table at the bottom of the garden where she left meat for the kites. No big deal.

The numbers on her phone ticked over to 3 o’clock. Come on, come on. Claire tapped her foot impatiently, and then wondered what her hurry was. It wasn’t as if she had a more pressing engagement. The morning had been spent wandering around a thirteenth-century castle, including stumbling through a damp limestone cave in the bowels of the fortification, with a hired torch.

The views from atop the castle mound had been breathtaking and she’d collected a batch for the blog, including a few with cows standing in the foreground. It was an incongruous place, but she couldn’t face anything more strenuous, like canoeing or cycling. Kim’s wedding gave her the perfect excuse, if not one she could offer to Carl. In an attempt to avoid intervention from the dreadful duo, she had decided some more spectacular photographs were the answer.

The hostel manager had suggested this trip to the Red Kite Feeding Station, for more stunning photographs. So far all she had experienced was an olfactory attack from the other hide members and a desperate need to pee.

Three o’clock arrived, as did a man with a bucket. Two or three dozen birds had gathered in the area without Claire noticing. They flapped their wings in anticipation as the food arrived and circled above the feeding station.

Everything seemed to happen at once. The noise of beating wings was deafening, even inside the hide. The dull grey sky filled with birds, wing feathers pointing like splayed fingers. There were so many it felt as if someone had photo-shopped the sky, overlaying the same two or three birds over and over in different poses of plummeting motion.

The birds swooped down and rose at speed, talons full of food. Even with her smartphone, Claire was able to capture a few incredible images. No longer conscious of the smell emanating from the person next to her, she focussed her entire attention on the writhing mass of birds. Nature, red in tooth and claw.

And then they were gone.

Her heart still hammering from the adrenalin of it, Claire followed the others out of the hide and strolled to the café.

I’m sure when Carl insisted on high-adrenalin activities, he didn’t envisage they could happen without me breaking a sweat.

***

Busy or Fruitful: 2013 365 Challenge #165

Son's first strawberry

Son’s first strawberry

Kirsten Lamb wrote a post today called, “Are you Being Busy or Fruitful?” It was timely, as I spent four hours working on something I didn’t think was due until next month, until the person emailed me and asked for it last night. What I should have been doing was writing Claire posts, because I’ve promised hubbie a weekend off to work on his new car.

Having the kids solo for the extra two days is likely to leave me exhausted and uncreative (there have been too many uncreative Claire posts recently… Re-reading the earlier volumes to brush up on Maggie, I realise I need to step it up.)

The gist of Kirsten’s post was identifying the difference between being fruitful and doing too much all at once. She explains that multi-tasking needs to be “one ‘thinking activity’ and one ‘mindless’.” Such as making the beds while phoning someone, or folding laundry while watching a movie. I write blog posts while walking the dog (not this one, it’s hammering with rain outside!), but that’s about the only one.

My biggest mistake is working on several things at once to ‘save time’ because my internet connection is so slow. I often sit with my iPad and my laptop, so I can check emails while a document is saving or loading. Unfortunately that just means I get distracted and wander off to read an interesting blog post or answer a message.

Daughter's first fruit

Daughter’s first fruit

I also have the same lack of focus with my writing. The task I did today (the one which meant I didn’t eat lunch until 3pm) was an author interview for the blog Susana’s Morning Room. I realised, when discussing my writing, that I have too many projects on the go. I’m trying to edit Baby Blues, write Two-Hundred Steps Home and promote Dragon Wraiths and the blog.

I tend to concentrate on the things I want to do, rather than have a structured plan. At the moment that means giving too much time to Baby Blues, because I want to get it fixed. I received a lovely five-star review for it today, so I’m even more motivated to set it free.

Unfortunately I also got my second set of Beta Reader feedback, and there is a lot to fix. More than I will manage to get done in a few hours twice a week, which is all I have right now. I’ve set myself a silly deadline, too, because I’m offering a free copy to commenters on my guest blogs, which go live on 5th and 12th July. A little over a month to change POV issues, a soggy middle and more grammar bugs than I care to think about!

Kirsten recommends lists to help us focus. I think I need more than lists: I need a personality transplant!

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Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog:

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“What brings you to the National Forest, Maggie? I thought your heart belonged to Cumbria.”

Claire looked across at the woman over the top of her tea. She caught a flicker of consternation, before Maggie’s customary smile shone out.

“A group of garrulous girls!”

Claire raised an eyebrow, and Maggie laughed. “I’m here with some school children. They’ve come on a two-day visit.”

“Oh God, are they staying here?” The words were out before Claire could stop and think. She exhaled in relief when Maggie’s smile didn’t waver.

“They are, but don’t be concerned, I make sure they don’t cause any disturbance after hours. It isn’t the quietest hostel, I’m afraid. These new-builds don’t have the sturdy thick walls of a Victorian structure. You hear a lot of doors clattering; it seems to echo through the woodwork.”

Claire took a mental note to ensure her headphones were close at hand at bed time although she was so exhausted, sleep was unlikely to be a problem with even a hundred girls tramping along the corridors.

“Where are you taking them? I would have thought you’d be out and about by now?”

“The girls are. We arrived yesterday and I was on duty for the journey and settling in. Thankfully they’ve given me the morning off to recuperate. I’m only a volunteer. The teachers aren’t so lucky, poor things.”

“What marvellous activity are you missing out on?” Claire’s eyes twinkled in mischief.

“A visit to Conkers.” In answer to Claire’s questioning glance, Maggie added, “It’s the adventure play centre next door. They’ll be quite happily driving their teachers crazy, getting lost and falling off the climbing frames.”

“What exciting activity do you get to do then?”

Maggie sank her chin onto her hands. “Llama trekking,” she said, her voice low. Claire laughed.

“The manager tried to get me to do that today!”

Her friend’s head raised and she met Claire’s eyes. “Why not join with us tomorrow? The more the merrier, as long as you don’t mind doing the odd headcount and taking them to the toilet?”

Immediate words of denial formed on Claire’s lips. She swallowed them. I have to do something crazy soon, otherwise I’ll have Julia on my case again.

“Okay, why not?”

Maggie grinned. “What about you? What have you been up to? The last time I saw you, you were taking that charming Australian man to the airport. And how is your sister?”

Claire was impressed at Maggie’s memory. “Josh is happily back in Australia with his wife and children. Ruth is okay, we hope. The cancer had spread further than we thought, but she’s responding well to treatment.” I must call her, Claire added privately, realising she hadn’t called home in a few days.

“And what about you, Claire? Are you happier in your skin?” Maggie’s words wormed into the ebbing hangover-fog in Claire’s mind.

“That’s a strange thing to say.”

“Please don’t be offended: I’m not prying. I merely had the impression you were unhappy, particularly when that lovely young man came to meet you.” There was a pause, as if Maggie was considering her words. “Was he… Did you know he was married?” She looked around the hostel lounge, not meeting Claire’s eye.

Claire’ first reaction was to put the interfering woman in her place. But it was hard to see Maggie as anything other than sincere.

“No, I didn’t know he was married. But, in answer to your other question, no we weren’t lovers. He tried to kiss me once, but I pushed him away, and he never tried again.”

“You sound disappointed.”

Damn. Claire laughed reluctantly. “I guess. He is charming. But I look like his wife, that’s all.”

Something in her tone put an end to Maggie’s questioning. It hurt to talk about Josh, more than she would have expected. The realisation crept in slowly through the haze.

I miss him. Damn him.

***