Tag Archives: failure

About the Fish

You might be wondering about the fish.

It’s not what it looks like. Or maybe it is—I don’t know what it looks like out of context. Either way, I can explain.

A couple of months ago, I got a bit angsty-artist and decided I needed to do something productive and sensible to make my job feel more valid to myself. So I set out to create business cards. I sifted through my website for striking images I could base my designs around.

I scrolled and scrolled

 

and scrolled

 

and scrolled

 

and scrolled

 

and scrolled

 

and scrolled

 

and scrolled

 

and I found frustration,

 

then desperation,

 

then shame.

Nothing was awesome, trendy, magical, weird or even relatable enough. Everything was bland. It was all failure.

I kept burrowing, kept sketching ideas. It started to consume me. I began in the afternoon, but somehow it was the evening.

I messaged a friend, one of those close friends you trust with your broken pieces and most despicable flaws, a friend you know would love you even if you kicked a baby sloth deliberately and with malicious forethought.*

And—because apparently I am capable of ruining even that—I sucked the conversation into my death-spiral.

Although ‘conversation’ is perhaps the wrong word. I sent over 20 messages without getting a reply, until eventually I reached the deepest part of whatever emotional swamp I was wading through and typed, in classy caps,

(no reply)

Fear tickled me. This time my broken pieces were too sharp and my flaws too repellent. Just as, deep down, I had always known they were. It was only a matter of time before she noticed. Soon, everyone else would realise too.

(This friend had just moved to the other side of the world, and I found out later that as this was occurring, she was lost on public-transport on her way to her first day of work. I have a mental image of some epic urban quest with trials and gatekeepers and monsters, and all the while a phone incessantly tinging with my self-absorbed pleas for reassurance.)

(no reply)

I took a deep breath.

And I thought back. And I realised that on the day this wave of self-loathing first came, something that might have been wonderful for my career had fallen through. Something that I thought hadn’t bothered me too much—these things happen to everyone after all, and I was too sensible to take it personally.

It was as though I had been lying in the dark, watching a looming shadow and convincing myself it was a blood-soaked monster lurking at the end of the bed that was waiting for a perfect peak of fear before it slurped my guts out. Naming it was like turning on the light. The moment I recognised what had first caused me to doubt myself, I could see the monstrous shadow was really that travesty of a jumper I had once convinced myself was an op shop find, draped weirdly on a chair.

I know, I know.

You want to assure me that bad jumpers are amazing. That my failure wasn’t really a failure at all. That these is no shame, only glory, in a vibrant, mad, misshapen, glittery beast of bad jumper.

I get that. That is, in fact, what I was aiming for.

This jumper isn’t a vibrant, mad, misshapen, glittery beast of a bad jumper. Such a jumper would belong to the queen of op shops. And I dared to believe, for one dazzling moment, that I was that queen. But then I got home and took my prize out the bag and looked at it, and I realised that I was not. Not that day, anyway.

The jumper I ended up with was a sort of old-lady-librarian chic** with a floral and leaves design in a muddy shade of vomit.

Also, it was a cardigan.

(I knew it was cardigan when I bought it, of course, but it didn’t really sink in until afterward.)

It may not have been a sadistic, blood-soaked monster, but it was still ghastly. (And it would have been so wonderful if that thing had worked out. And it didn’t).

But it was also just a cardigan.

So I took another deep breath—everyone acquires a ghastly cardigan sooner or later—and made a cup to tea—I was too sensible to take it personally.

And then I drew a comic about how I had been feeling (one that you’ve already seen). I drew myself weirdly badly being slapped in the face by a fish. I wrote this.

And I made my business cards.

I wore the metaphorical cardigan. I don’t know any other way to deal with life.

 

* Advice: don’t kick baby sloths. Especially not deliberately and with malicious forethought. First degree baby-sloth-kickers do not fare well in prison.

** An admittedly ridiculous way to describe it. There is a stereotype of old ladies and librarians that overlooks the reality that they can be stylish or sweet or funky but always gloriously themselves.

 

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Two of the illustrations from this story are available in my store! You can get Fish Slap and Urban Quest as art prints or on mugs and other cool stuff. Have a browse!

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Failure in A Minor (Some Other Girl)

Once there was a girl who wanted to be a music teacher. She started playing the piano when she was eleven and the clarinet when she was thirteen. She loved playing and wanted to spend her life helping others like her have that opportunity too.

Third person, you understand. She isn’t me. Some other girl.

some other girl

But actually that’s not the story. If you want to understand, it can’t start there. It has to start further back with a little girl who wanted to be a novelist. Or maybe an artist, she hadn’t quite decided.

some other little girl

The little girl loved reading books and drawing and making up her own stories, and she hated waking up early. She had heard that full-time writers and artists could wake up whenever they liked and never even had to change out of their pyjamas if they didn’t want to.

writing bliss

Sensible adults warned her that neither of these were easy careers. You couldn’t expect to make a living straight away, maybe ever, and you had to be really good.

She wanted to be really good.

She taught herself everything she could about writing from the internet, but most of what she learned was about bad writing. She read never-ending lists of mistakes and snide articles that dissected books she had loved to display their failing organs. She discovered plot holes and infodumps and two-dimensional characters and weak adverbs and purple prose and countless other things. There were so many ways to fail.

bad writing

Maybe in another story she would fight on, learn things, face her demons and emerge successful and glorious.

But we’re here for the other girl, the one who wants to be a music teacher. And we haven’t quite found her yet.

You still need to know that the little girl didn’t have many friends. This little girl, the one who wanted to be a novelist or writer (but wasn’t good enough), was a social failure. She didn’t fit in and was being bullied.

bullied

And she was lonely.

So she joined her school concert band and clarinet ensemble. She had some friends in these groups and made some more, and she found she could cleverly schedule her instrumental lessons over the parts of the school day that she most wanted to escape.

And there she is, the other girl. We’re back at the beginning. I’m sorry about the detour, but it was important, and we can begin properly now.

Once there was a girl who wanted to be a music teacher. She played the piano and clarinet. She loved escaping to play them and wanted to spend her life helping others like her have that opportunity too.

The girl went to university to get the qualifications she would need.

She thought it would be like music at school, only better because music would be all the lessons instead of just some of them.

music bliss

It wasn’t.

None of this happened to me of course. I didn’t have a bad experience studying music at university. I did not fall short again and again. I was not humiliated.

But maybe—third person—she was. That other girl.

failure

Maybe she was told that it was a character test, everything was a character test, and that she was failing.

She remembered how after-school cartoons had tried to teach her that failure wasn’t a bad thing, real failure was not trying and supreme failure was giving up.

But it felt bad. And she was trying really hard and it wasn’t helping.

She didn’t really understand. But she thought she did, and what she understood was that she couldn’t give up. Not ever, no matter how much she wanted to.

So she tried to remember that she was a girl who wanted to be a music teacher and kept going.

She endured a whole year of not giving up. And then she attended her last lesson before the summer holidays and walked out and went home. That other girl.

walking out

And as she walked out she said good bye and happy holidays and see you next year.

walking out with talking

Because she hadn’t quit. Everyone believed she would be back. She couldn’t even give up properly.

It didn’t start with a girl who wanted to be a music teacher, but where does it end and which girl does it end with?

Maybe it ended years ago, when the girl who wanted to be a music teacher got home at the end of the year wanting to be anything but a music teacher. She finally gave up, the most terrible and absolute way to fail. She changed degree (softly, safely via email), knowing that it was all character test, but not yet understanding that there is no grade.

quitting

 

It was not a decision she ever regretted, not even for a moment.

Maybe it ends now, with the little girl who wanted to be a novelist (or an artist) as a woman working as a writer and an illustrator. Perhaps, in the end, she did fight on, face her demons and emerge glorious.

writing and illustrating

But is it only okay that she failed then if she succeeds now? And success is a slippery term. She loves what she is doing and believes she is finally in the right place. But she isn’t making a living. And she has a chronic illness and cannot have another job to protect herself. And she is still frightened that she is not good enough, cannot be good enough.

(You have to be really good.)

do it anyway

Or maybe it ends someday yet to come, with a woman who sees her clarinet case and feels something close to curiosity. She will pull it out, wipe off the dust and put the instrument together. She will rediscover how the pieces fit, and then she will play again and enjoy it.

clarinet

But that’s not quite the right ending either. And maybe nothing will be. I think that this isn’t the kind of story that ends.

Because she’s still walking out. That girl, that other girl. Somewhere, always.

She was caught like a mosquito in amber as she pushed open the door, with all the failure crushing down on her and no resolution. So she is still smiling—a tired, fracturing smile—and still saying nice things to the people who made her feel worthless. And she is still telling them she’ll be back next year. And she is always promising she can do better.

(She didn’t mean to lie, but she did and it is caught too).

The moment is suspended, and then that other girl is dropped back into my life, sending ripples in all directions.

me

I am always heading away from her failure. I am always heading toward he failure. I am always her, failing.

But I understand the cartoons a little better now. Failure isn’t a bad thing.

(Even when it feels bad.)