Some of our favourite and most talented writers share their ‘bad fails’, reminding us that everybody makes mistakes. Join us to celebrate failure at Bad Writing.
I failed and dropped out of three different university degrees. I grew up in Kalgoorlie and then the outer suburbs of Perth, and no one in my family or my surrounds had bothered to tell me that you could go to university to just read books. I figured out what a BA was when I was 23 and majored in Philosophy, which some would think is its own special type of failure. About a month ago I was at a party and it came out to a stranger what I’d spent four years of my life studying. He mockingly asked, “So how did that work out in the employment stakes?” Pretty well, actually. (Andy has worked in the arts for a couple of years now and currently works at the Melbourne Writers Festival.)
I failed to make a pair of denim cut offs, once. If you’ve ever seen my legs—translucent, like a gecko’s—you’re probably thinking it’s not such a bad thing that I failed. The practice pair I’d bought from a children’s clothing rack quite literally burst at the seams after I squeezed into them, a violent removal that might have even been vaguely seductive had there been anyone in my bedroom to witness it besides a house-plant named Alicia. Without a model pair to copy from, I made a wild guess and a careful cut—right through the crotch of my favourite jeans, which, I learned, is a half-decent way to make a skirt, but no way to make a pair of denim cut offs.
I wrote a show that I hated performing back in 2012. Audiences liked it enough for it to keep working, but I really hated every word. I naively thought that it would be alright, and that I would adjust the work as I went—hopefully shaping it into something that I liked. The reality soon set in that I had committed to performing a heavy, inflexible narrative out loud for an hour every night for a month, followed by several supplementary seasons. Each night was a lead-footed stomp to the venue where I would stand on stage, measuring in my head what percentage of the hour I had left to spit out before I was allowed to stop. People clapped, reviewers said pleasant enough things but it was the least fun I’ve ever had onstage. From that I’ve hopefully learned to get a better sense of where a work is heading during the creative process, so that I’m not stuck with a final product that I can’t stand to look at. That was my last attempt at making anything that I can’t break out of onstage and loose flexibility has been a hallmark of my style ever since.
Once at a poetry open mic I drank enough wine to decide my cool and funny and ‘experimental’ idea was sooo clever, so I put my name down. I did an improvised riff on how poets introduce themselves before they begin to read (the idea being that there was no poem at the end and I’d sit back down and everyone would laugh at my cool avant-garde style). Rather than a funny cool not-poem, it was a rambling couple of minutes while I spoke, with some unexpectedly cruel jokes, which I became mortified about as soon as I opened my mouth. It haunts me till today and reminds me that beneath all my self-doubt I have a beast of an ego that needs to be kept in check. I learned that I am not cut out for improv.
2006, early November. I was newly eighteen, hungover for maybe the fourth time in my life. I wobbled down the beach with my friend Anna, and feeling absolutely rat shit with my face down on the sand has, ever since, been about the last thing I remember that day. Until waking up in emergency with heat stroke and serious burns. Up until Year 12, I’d been the surly ginger kid wearing a hoodie and jeans and socks at the beach. But since hanging out with the girls from MacRob and the boys from Melbourne Grammar who were absurdly attractive and mysteriously always tanned, I’d started to deny my paleness with an impressive sort of aggression. The doctor said the backs of my legs—I’d been wearing a tiny pair of Juicy short shorts—had nearly suffered third degree burns. A nurse wrapped them up in gauze and bandage, warned me they would bubble, and told me to stay in bed with them comfortably bent towards the ceiling. While my friends lost their virginities at Schoolies and went clubbing using their real IDs, I stayed at home all summer watching Oprah and Ready Steady Cook in the dark of my room, where my parents had wheeled in the spare TV. Perhaps most ridiculous of all, is the way the scars healed: thousands of little freckles on the backs of my legs from the crease of my butt down to my ankles. A gentle reminder never to pretend to be rich or tanned or cool again. And perhaps to steer clear of certain brands of vodka.
I’ve failed a lot and have made a lot of big mistakes. Even then, it’s almost impossible to think of a particular moment to recount—whether it’s among friends or at a job interview. I can’t tell if it’s because my brain perfectly represses all my downfalls or if my ego doesn’t want to believe I’ve ever failed (are those the same thing?). I actually feel the weight of failure often because I’m pretty hard on myself; failed pitches, bad grades, and not matching with someone on Tinder all feel heavy in the same way to me. I take it all really personally, run through a list in my head of all the ways I suck and then cry about it. I’m a busy person so even though some days I want to lay in bed and feel sorry for myself, having a support system really gets me through that. I think it’s easy to forget everyone fails and makes mistakes. I forget all the time. I get really embarrassed of failure and try and hide it but telling a friend so they can overload my inbox with sad memes gets me out the door on my way to make my next big mistake for the day.