‘Tiah, what are you going to do next?’
It was mid-August 2016. I was standing outside a café, chatting on the phone with a writer I respect and admire. She’d called after my resignation from Short Story Day Africa was announced. SSDA is an organisation that I love and believe in (you can donate HERE), so much so that I’d given my life to it for nearly five years. But on that day, I didn’t know what I was going to do. All I knew was that I needed to work less and write more, and leaving SSDA was the only way to achieve that. My bank account, however, was less than impressed with the decision.
SSDA was always a labour of love, but for the last few years I’d been compensated sufficiently to cover yearly school fees for one child. Yes, I still had my gig at the Sunday Times. It is wonderful work and I love it, but there is only so much they need. The rest of my freelance work brings in tiny amounts. So I had to do more. But what?
‘Have you thought of writing for FunDza?’ the writer asked.
Impossible, I thought. But my mouth asked for further information.
FunDza is a brilliant NPO that produces free online stories, primarily aimed at teen readers. But I knew nothing about writing YA. I’d always viewed it as its own separate art form (it is) and one that was beyond my scope.
Chicken, an inner voice sneered.
Realistic, I replied.
Where the inner voice trotted out everything I tell under-eighteens during creative writing workshops, including:
- Everyone’s first draft stinks, but if you don’t write something down, you’ll never have anything to work with.
- If you don’t try, you’ll never grow.
- Some of the best lessons and opportunities arise from failure.
Perhaps it is fitting that ‘Dislocated,’ my first successful submission to FunDza, started with failure. The story began life as part of a novel. It was an ambitious project, told from three different viewpoints, which I’d written over a span of two sleep-deprived years while raising toddlers. Nobody wanted it. It was a blow. Big time. But there I was, years later, pulling out my failed manuscript, because amongst those 75,000ish words there was a section written from a teenager’s perspective. I reread it and realised with editing, it could stand alone. And so it did.
Writing for FunDza in 2017 was far from easy. I learned on the job, where any visitor to the site can witness my floundering. FunDza readers know exactly what they like and what they don’t, and they are blunt. Chapter by chapter, right on the website for the world to see, are the readers’ comments. Humbling, to say the least. Yet that feedback is valuable and pushed me to new areas I’d never have tried otherwise.
2017 brought other challenges. I found myself accepting the position of managing editor of a new journal. I agreed to try a co-writing project. I faced my fears and started submitting two novel length manuscripts, both of which were risks. The first was an experiment with literary speculative fiction, the second, an effort at fantasy. The speculative fiction novel was the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write, and appears to have flopped. The latter was also outside my comfort zone, yet it resulted in the most fun I’ve ever had while writing. Yet, despite some interest in that project, it is entirely possible that it, too, will fail.
Which hurts. The demons started telling me I’d wasted my time. Again. But without those two novels, I probably would not have mustered the courage to explore the paying world of short speculative fiction. Which is how I found myself trying to write a futuristic short story filled with newfangled gadgets and technology. I knew nothing about writing futuristic stories. But I read them. And I was willing to fail.
2017 was full of failure, rejection, and false starts. Yet it was also the first time in my life I’ve met my financial goals by writing. None of that work – from writing for the Sunday Times, to writing YA, to writing speculative fiction – is in my comfort zone. Yet these are the writing gigs that have allowed me to pay for my son’s first year of high school.
None of this, of course, made rejection less painful. Nor did the year teach me how to accept disappointment with grace. Nothing about 2017 has silenced that voice that sneers, ‘That last story was a fluke; you’ll never be able to pull it off again.’
Even worse, that nagging demon is telling me, right now as I type, that for 2018 I’m going to come woefully short of paying next year’s school fees.
So I don’t have words of wisdom on how to embrace failing. But I can quote young Isabella Jernigan*. At age eight, in honour of Thanksgiving 2014, she proclaimed: ‘I’m thankful for all the dead people because at least they tried.’
As hilarious and macabre Jernigan’s words might be, they are true. What is a life, other than years of try, try again?
*In the original news article, her name was misspelt as Isabella Jerhigan, which is the name that went viral at the time.